My First Bus Trip in India: Haridwar to Agra Overnight

“Travel by bus, it’s nicer than the train, and easier” – words from Pinky, a lovely girl working at my yoga school. She’s local, she knows what she’s talking about, I thought, so I took her advice.

She was right, it was a lot easier to book a bus than a train, but I thought I’d share my first experience of travelling by bus in India – merely for the pure amusement of the story.

Ida & Michael, an amazing couple I met during my yoga teacher training, wanted to come with me to Agra to see the Taj Mahal before their flight out of Delhi. They had just 36 hours to spare, so an overnight bus was our only option. Even if we had managed to find train tickets, the timings weren’t right for them to make it in time.

To book online you need either, a) an Indian phone number (failed at the first step) and b) an Indian credit card (woops, no-can-do) OR you can book through a travel agent. We tried to book with a couple of travel agents during our time in Rishikesh and for many different reasons that plan failed. So instead we decided to book it at the bus station, a couple of hours before it was due to leave. Easy, right? Ermmm…no

Every so often the families would all stand up and hustle to grab their numerous belongings before hot-footing it out to whichever bus they were catching. How do they know when it’s their bus? I thought.

Our taxi dropped us at Haridwar bus station. The station is square with a central covered waiting area in the middle and several booths resembling ticket stalls. Everything was in Hindi so there was no chance we were checking out the signage; instead we went to the first booth and asked. Sorry, next booth. OK. We tried the next booth and he said yes, and then walked off. Hmm, we waited a few minutes and he came back with a piece of paper. Go around the corner to Ganga Computer store, he said, and get them to book your ticket online for you. Interesting….

We did what he said, after all we had no choice, and went and bought our tickets. The bus we wanted was sold out, so we had to go with the (much more expensive!) option an hour later. Never mind, we thought, it’s a ‘Volvo Sleeper Bus’, it will be worth the money.

Satisfied with our choice we grabbed some food and headed back to the station at 7.30pm. Around us Indian families were waiting, squatting down low to rest surrounded by sacks packed with god-knows-what and barefooted children playing tag. Our bus was due in at 8.40pm and at 8pm we started asking around, just in case. There were no signs (not that we would have been able to understand them!) and seemingly no announcements about which buses where leaving when and from which of the 20 stands they were leaving from, so it was guess work. Every so often the families would all stand up and hustle to grab their numerous belongings before hot-footing it out to whichever bus they were catching. How do they know when it’s their bus? I thought.

Michael asked every driver in the station solidly for 30 minutes and every one said, no, they were not going to Agra. Eventually, a man sat near us took pity and started asking in Hindi too. This helped, but what he found out was that our bus had been cancelled. Really? We didn’t know what to believe. Maybe it was just late? That happens in India all the time.

After 15 minutes of more asking, our friend became adamant that our nice expensive bus wasn’t coming. If you want to go to Agra tonight you need to get on that bus there, he said, pointing across the station at a ‘local’ bus. It leaves in 5 minutes, you must go. We had very little time to make the decision but all wanted to get out of Haridwar by that point. We got on the bus which was already jammed to the rafters with people and their bags. Our brusque conductor barked a few words at some passengers and miraculously they made three spaces; one for me between the window and a man the size and demeanour of a grizzly bear, and two (the size of one) for Ida and Michael on a row with one other guy. Michael’s knees where touching the seat in front and he had a pillar digging into his left shoulder blade, Ida had her backpack on her lap.

Our Local Bus

It took me a few moments to realise what we were doing. Were we really about to spend 10 hours overnight on this rickety hunk of junk, crammed in like cattle with nothing more than a thin piece of foam between the wooden seat and my butt? Yes, yes we were. Another 355 rupees on top of our 1100 expensive bus fee and we were about to take the world’s most expensive shitty bus ride of our lives!

Just as we started moving out of the station a guy jumped on and started talking loudly and in not a nice tone to Ida, gesticulating to his bag which what in the rack above her head. It seemed that he had taken umbrage with her sitting in what he deemed to be ‘his seat’ because his bag was above it. Like a pro, she ignored him so he flounced off to get the conductor. The conductor took one look at him and told him to sit down in a different seat and be quiet. Don’t mess with this guy!

My neighbour was one of those men who is always too wide for any seat and who feels the need to cross his arms across his chest, just to take up more room. To make matters worse he had his phone in his left pocket which was digging into my thigh. I tried a couple of times to ask him to move it but didn’t want to spend too much time drawing attention to that region of his body in case he got the wrong idea.

Across the aisle were his wife and children and she looked very concerned for me. She tried to ask Michael to swap because her husband had had quite a lot to drink and it would be better if he was sat next to a man (excellent) but in all honesty Michael would not have fit in that space, so we told her it was no problem.

I decided that the best plan would be to get as comfortable as possible and sleep it out. Wearing both my warm jumpers and both my scarves to protect me from the breeze which was whipping through the open door which happened to be next to my seat, I added my blow-up neck pillow to the equation and managed to keep my neck in a pretty comfortable position. I closed my eyes and willed sleep to come. Unfortunately Mr. Drunken Bear was becoming less and less in control of his body and moved heavily with the swing and sway of the ever-moving-bus which meant I was constantly having to dig in an elbow to ensure some modicum of personal space.

Minutes, or maybe hours later I felt a drooping head on my shoulder -  HELL NO. A swift raised shoulder to the temple sorted that one out; he grunted and moved away. This happened a few times before he got the message.

Finally I must have fallen asleep because before I knew it there was an almighty crash and I woke to find him sprawled head-first on the floor down the aisle! The bus had had to brake suddenly and he’d been sent flying! I couldn’t hide my amusement as I should have.

As the night wore on and the feeling in my bum and legs disappeared and the breeze from the door had started to make my nose run I wondered briefly whether it might have been better to sleep on the floor of Haridwar bus station…

Eventually the bus emptied and black of night turned to dusky grey. I woke to find Michael next to me; my bear-like friend had thankfully moved to another seat some time after his epic fall. As we realised we were in Agra I was exhausted but thankful to have survived, and amazingly with all my teeth still in my mouth (it had been touch and go with the lack of suspension coupled with the multiple unpaved and pot-holed roads!). Unfortunately I should have spent less time thinking about myself and more time getting on Google Maps to see where we should get off the bus. By the time I had worked it out we were on a freeway heading away from our hostel. Damn. We tried to ask the conductor to let us off as soon as possible but his English seemed to conveniently escape him at that point and we carried on out to the bus depot in the middle of nowhere! Excellent.

Tired, hungry and really over India by this point we refused a tuktuk ride for 450 rupees and started to walk. It didn’t take long for him to take his price down to 200 and we crammed ourselves and our bags into the back and set off for our hostel.

Half way there, having started to digest our night’s excitement I started to laugh. We’re a long way from Rishikesh and our comfy yoga bubble now!! Welcome to real India, I thought, how fun.