Every so often on IM we have people wondering about travelling overland to India from Europe, and I regularly get questions on the subject.

Since many people seem to think it's not possible, or too dangerous, I thought I'd do an article on it, covering the main topics. Other IMers who have done the trip can add their own thoughts in the comments thread below.

The Route from Europe to India

The straightforward and most popular route goes from Istanbul, through Turkey into Iran, than south-east across Iran to Baluchistan, crossing into Pakistan, before moving onto Lahore and India.

Time to get to India From Europe

With visas in order, it is possible to travel from Istanbul to Delhi in about a week, going non-stop. Obviously, this won't be very pleasant. Each country is worth months of travel in its own right, but for those just wishing to make it to India, seeing a few things along the way, I'll mention some highlights that most people don't want to miss.

Thing-To-See along the way to India from Europe

 This was a shot taken near Erzurum the capital of Eastern Turkey a part of route of the Hippie Trail to India. The southern route went through Iraq. Shortly after we sat in an 8 hour truck jam back up at the Iranian border and if you had long hair you had to wait a few hours more. We eventually made it through the customs with ease and embarked on the Iranian odyssey. Oh the customs guy did threaten to cut off Bill's hair because his passport photo did not match his present look. Bill was one of 5 of us in a VW van travelling from Istanbul east. By Lou Wilson

If rushing through Turkey, make Istanbul and Cappadocia your main stops, as they are two places that are probably unequaled in the world. (For two great sites on Turkey, see Turkey from the Inside by Pat Yale, a long-time writer for the Lonely Planet's Turkey issue, and TurkeyCentral.com, which is kind of like 'TurkeyMike'.)

Iran has its very own Golden Triangle of Esfahan, Shiraz (for Persepolis) and Yazd, which should be your main stops if rushing through.

In Pakistan, Lahore and Peshawar are probably the best stops on the way to India, although Peshawar is a bit of a detour. At this moment in time, Peshawar may not be entirely safe for foreign tourists to visit - it's best to check the security situation beforehand.

If you have more time, at least a month in each country will give you a chance to really explore. Turkey is perhaps second only behind India in terms of diversity, with beaches, ruins, mountains, great food and people. Iran is a fascinating, complex country with great hospitality and history, and yes, very safe.

As for Pakistan, its northern mountains are its main draw. See this thread about spending seven weeks in Pakistan for details.

Meeting Other Travelers

The are a few places along the way where overlanders tend to congregate. In Istanbul, the Sultanahmet hostels are popular with people heading east. I’ve stayed at the Orient Hostel three times, the last time you could get a bed in a huge dormitory out the back for €9. The situation in Goreme in Cappadocia is similar – my favorite guest-house there is the Kose Pension. At Dogubayazit at the Turkey-Iran frontier, there is a campsite on the road up to the Ishak Pasha Palace that is popular with overlanders in their own vehicle.

In Iran, there are three main popular guest houses – Hotel Mashad in Tehran (close to the Imam Khomeini metro stop), the Amir Kabir hostel in Esfahan, and the Silk Road Hostel in Yazd.

In Pakistan, in 2005 the Muslim Hotel was the most popular guest house in Quetta, especially with Japanese travelers. Not sure if this is still the case. Perhaps the most famous guest house along the way is the Regale Internet Inn in Lahore at Regale Chowk. I believe there are also campsites in Quetta and Islamabad.

Costs for the Journey from Europe to India

Turkey is on a par with Eastern Europe, when I was there in 2005, I spent between € 25-35 per day, cheaper in backpackers places like Cappadocia. In the east, with less tourists, accommodation is higher, but general costs less. I returned in 2008 and 2009, and the costs were similar.

In Iran, in 2005, I got through Iran on about €10-15 p/day. I returned in 2009 and costs, especially accommodation, had risen so that I averaged something like €20 p/day. I'm not sure how costs in Iran have been affected by the recent sanctions imposed on the country.

In Pakistan in 2005 I spent €10-€12 p/day.

Update December 2013

IM member Kamcoolin reports here on his recent trip to Iran, where he spent an average €21 p/day.

Visas needed from Europe to India

 Somewhere in eastern Iran By Alan D
Buy your Turkish visa at the border, no problem. It makes a lot of sense to get your Iranian and Pakistani visas in advance in your home country, as both can be hassles to get on the road.

In particular, Iran is known as a tricky place to get Pakistani and Indian visas. Iranian visas are for up to 30 days, and extendable. They're valid for entry for up to 3 months after issue (this doesn't apply to Americans, who must visit on an expensive tour).

Iranian visas can be a hassle, particularly if you're not getting them in your home country or if the political situation between your country and Iran is in a bad state. For example, following the post-2009 election unrest, British and Canadian citizens found it quite hard to secure a tourist visa for Iran. But when things cooled down, it got easier.

One thing many travelers do to speed up the process is to go through an agency. Three popular agencies are Iranianvisa.com, Key2Persia and Touranzaman. In 2005 I used Iranianvisa, and in 2009 Touranzaman. What these agencies do is send your application straight to Tehran. When the application is approved, they send you an authorization number which you then present at the embassy that you've chosen, to get your visa. Don't despair if you're unsuccessful the first time - try again with a different agency. A useful thread at Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree for keeping up with visa-related news for Iran is this one - Visa Advice for Travelers Going to Iran.

Pakistani visas are for up to 3 months and they're valid for entry for up to 3 months after issue. Since 2005, there have been changes made to the system, whereby it has become increasingly difficult to secure a Pakistani visa outside your home country. This has made it tricky for foreign travelers in India who wish to travel west to Europe overland. Also, for some time it has been possible to secure a Visa-On-Arrival at the Sost border post at the Chinese border in the north. But there have been some reports that this has been cancelled lately.

The best place to keep abreast of the ever-changing visa regulations is the Thorn Tree's Pakistan branch.

When applying for a Pak visa in your home country, the embassy may request that you need a Letter of Recommendation from a Pakistani Tourist Agency detailing your itinerary, along with a hotel booking. Lost Horizon did this for me in 2009, they ask nothing in return.

In 2005, Indian visas were available at the High Commission in Islamabad. I'm not sure if this is still the same.

Transport options to India from Europe

Many travelers drive across. In 2005 I met a Dutch couple at the Wagah border crossing in their camper-van. I met them again in Goa three months later. IM member Dacoit Chief has a very useful thread regarding taking your vehicle with you - Travelling overland from Europe to India by car; info. on Carnet de Passage. These sites may also be useful regarding the isolated Taftan to Quetta stretch - Quetta Overland and The Longest Way Home (How to travel from Iran to Pakistan overland)

For train options, check out The Man in Seat 61 - How to travel overland by train from London to India or Pakistan.

My own experience is as follows:

  • In Turkey, buses are quicker and go to far more destinations than the trains. They are also of a very high standard. HOWEVER - I love trains, and Turkish train journeys tend to be particularly scenic, especially in the east of the country. So if you have the time to spend 41 hours on the train from Istanbul to Kars when the bus takes half that time, then it might be worth it.
  • In Iran, I have only taken the train once in four weeks in the country. The buses go everywhere from everywhere, are dirt cheap, and good quality. The trains are expensive, get booked out quickly, and are not very convenient.
  • In Pakistan, the train experience is more akin to India, and so obviously preferable to the bus. I would certainly recommend traveling from Quetta to Lahore (or Multan) by train, and from Lahore to Rawalpindi and Peshawar. In the Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan/Pakistani Kashmir) there are no trains, so you'll be using jeeps and buses.

Some companies specialize in overland travel for tour groups. One such is Dragoman, recommended on IM by member Tim Makins.

Safety Concerns while Traveling

Many travelers worry about safety on this trip. In recent years, south-east Turkey has seen an increase in PKK attacks on Turkish security forces. However, earlier this year (2013), it seemed as if a peace deal had been reached between the PKK leadership and the Turkish government. It remains to be seen if the deal is another false dawn or the start of a more lasting period of calm. Either way, tourists have never been targeted in this conflict, and the main roads in the region are secure enough for safe travel. Otherwise, Turkey is as safe as anywhere.

Iran is probably the safest of the countries on the route. Only the south-east region of Baluchistan can be considered tricky. For those heading straight through on buses (the wise option), there are no real concerns. However, those traveling on their own transport, particularly cyclists, do face possible kidnap risks. In 2003, 2 Germans and 1 Irishman were captured by drug lords cycling through, on the Iranian side. It should be pointed out that such incidents are not related to Taliban activities, and are more to do with the Iranian government’s war on drugs.

Since 2005, the security situation in many areas of Pakistan has deteriorated, especially in the tribal areas along the Afghan frontier. However, tourists are not allowed to enter these areas anymore. In 2005 I was able to take a trip from Peshawar up to the Afghan border at the Khyber Pass, but this is no longer possible. In my opinion, the rest of country is safe enough for travel, as long as you take the bus straight from Taftan (the Iranian frontier) to Quetta, and the train from there on to Multan or Lahore. The Punjab is fine, although Sindh has its own unique security concerns related to banditry in the countryside and political violence in Karachi. But these are not on the direct route. The Northern Areas in particular are as safe as anywhere, as their ethnic and religious makeup is significantly different from the Pashtu areas along the Afghan frontier.

Everyone has different ideas of what their idea of a safe trip is, so it's not really a topic that anyone can give you definitive advice about. Do your research and as a responsible adult, make your choice. Personally, I would travel to Pakistan tomorrow if I could, as it's probably my favorite country that I've visited.

[Update August 2013]

Violence in Baluchistan, particularly in the form of bombs targeting minorities in Quetta and cooridinated attacks targeting buses in the province, has escalated considerably this year. Additionally, in June 2013 a group of climbers was attacked and ten killed by the Taliban at Nanga Parbat base camp, located in an area that hadn't previously seen the violence that has plagued Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to the south and west. Certainly something to bear in mind for those planning an overland trip right now.

Alternate Routes to India from Europe

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, a trickle of travelers started returning to Afghanistan, and for a few years, reported that the country was generally safe-ish north of the Pashtu heartland. However, the situation around the country has deteriorated since then, and from what I read on Thorn Tree, Afghanistan is now best avoided altogether, as random bombings and kidnapping of foreigners increase. A shame, as many of our older members who made the overland trip in the 1960s and 70s will testify.

Another route could take you through the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. These can be reached from Iran, by Caspian Sea ferry from Azerbaijan, or from Russia by train. Visas for these countries are a hassle, by all accounts. Try Stantours or Real Russia. IM member Jeraboa has provided much detailed and valuable information relating to acquiring visas for the Central Asian states: see here and here. This route will eventually land you in Kashgar, Western China, from where the Karakorum Highway will bring you down into Pakistan. You could also make your way from Kashgar into Tibet and down into India via Nepal. It's really a big trip all in itself, with loads to see and do, ancient silk road cities, great mountains and people, etc.

There are many potential sidetrips along the way, and I highly recommend the Balkans, the Arab Middle East and the Caucasus, which are all accessible from Turkey, and are great destinations for travelers, although the current situation in Syria seems to have cut off the overland route to Egypt. Many travelers include a loop through the Caucasus or a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan on their way from Turkey to Iran. Another often possibility often enquired about from those wishing to avoid Pakistan is a ferry to India from one of the Arab kingdoms of the Gulf, themselves accesible by a short ferry from Bandar Abbas in southern Iran. Unfortunately, I have yet to come across an account of any traveler successfully doing this, but hopefully it's something that will open up in the future.

Update - September 2013

IM member willn notes in the comments a recent account of a cycling couple successfully getting on to an expensive freighter from the Gulf to Mumbai - see here

See here for a map of the various overland possibilities - Overland routes to India

Suggested Reading

Some of my favorite travel books relating to this trip:

  • Robert Byron - The Road to Oxiana.
  • Edward Granville Browne - A Year Amongst the Persians (Available free on archive.org and similar sites)
  • Paul Theroux – The Great Railway Bazaar
  • Paul Theroux – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
  • William Dalrymple – In Xanadu
  • Colin Thubron – In the Shadow of the Silk Road
  • Colin Thubron - The Lost Heart of Asia
  • Jason Elliot - Mirrors of the Unseen
  • V.S. Naipaul - Among the Believers

For some history/politics on the region and on each country:

  • Stephen F. Dale -  The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals
  • Marshall Hodgson - The Venture of Islam Vol.3: The Gunpowder Empires and Modern Times
  • Ross E. Dunn - The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century
  • Cemal Kafadar - Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State
  • Bruce Clark - Twice a Stranger: The Mass Expulsions that Forged Modern Greece and Turkey
  • Bernard Lewis - The Emergence of Modern Turkey
  • Andrew Mango - Ataturk
  • Roy Mottahedeh - The Mantle of the Prophet (about religion and politics in Iran - best book on the Middle East I've read)
  • Anatol Lieven - Pakistan: A Hard Country
  • Faisal Devji - Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea     

Finally

The great thing about this trip, as many IM members who have done it will testify, is that you're eased into each country, which is different from the last. It's a fascinating trip through history, diverse people, and it's always a surprise. There is none of the typical culture shock often experienced by travelers who land in Delhi straight off a flight from their home country.

For an excellent recent account of the trip, see this thread - Europe-India Overland via Turkey, Iran & Pakistan - by IM member hellogoodbye.

Photos

For some photos from the journey, see below or this video I made recently.

European Sleeper Carriage: If you can afford it, try to get yourself a private sleeper on at least one of the trains through Europe (if this is how you plan on reaching Istanbul). This was taken on the Bucharest-Istanbul train. You get a fridge, sink, clothes-hangers, comfortable berth, and a shower at the end of the carriage. Just make sure you stock up on snacks, wine/beers, etc. Note that Turkish sleepers provide the same facilities, some pretty decent food in the dining carriage, and are considerably cheaper.

Danube River: The wide Danube marks the Romania-Bulgaria border crossing here, a couple of hours after leaving Bucharest. The journey through Bulgaria is quite scenic, lots of green hills and rivers. Sometime between 1am and 3am, you'll be woken up at the Turkish frontier to buy your visa. The next morning, you'll wake up with the Sea of Marmara on your right, and the minarets of Istanbul ahead in the distance. Eventually, the train takes you into the city, past the ancient city walls of Constantinople, and drops you at Sirkeci Station, in the heart of the city. From here, a tram can take you the few stops up the hill to Sultanahmet and the budget hotels.

Golden Horn, Istanbul: Inlet divides the European side of the city in two, between the older southern side, with Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar, and the more modern northern side, centered on Taksim Square. If you arrive in Istanbul by train, you'll see the Golden Horn on your right as you exit Sirkeci Station.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul: Iconic landmark in Istanbul, right across from the Aya Sofia museum, and short walking distance to the budget hotels.

Goreme, Cappadocia: Amazing landscape in central Turkey. East of here, Turkey starts to change, as the more traditional Middle Eastern culture becomes more apparent.

Train ride, Eastern Turkey: Turkish train journeys are always very scenic - this is the Euphrates River somewhere east of Sivas.

Akdamar Church, Lake Van: 1,000 year-old Armenian Church located on an island in Lake Van, in the far east of Turkey. Some good camping spots around this area.

Ishak Pasa Palace, Doğubeyazıt: Last stop before the Turkey/Iran frontier. Doğubeyazıt itself is a fairly uninspiring town, but this old Kurdish palace overlooks it and the surrounding plain, with Mt. Ararat just out of sight. More camping spots. Savor your last beer before Iran!

Tabriz Bazaar: Tabriz is the first major city you come to in Iran after crossing. It's an extremely friendly place. The people who live here are Azeri Turks, most of them don't speak Farsi. It has, in my opinion, the best bazaar between Istanbul and Delhi (although Aleppo in Syria matches it), and some interesting day trips to Kandovan and Jolfa.

Solmaniyeh Mausoleum: Mongol dome in north-west Iran, close to Zanjan. A UNESCO World Heritage sight.

Tehran: OK, this was taken on a Friday, when the traffic in Tehran is negligible. You can see the Alborz mountains in the background. Trust me, on any other day, the traffic would be immense. Tehran traffic can be summed up in three words: worse than India. Enough said.

Persepolis: Ancient ruined city of Darius in southern Iran, close to Shiraz.

Tea House at Imam Square, Esfahan: This is the view from a very famous tea-house over-looking Esfahan's famous square. I think I spent every night in Esfahan up there, along with most of the other travelers in town.

Yazd Skyline: Yazd is an absolute gem on the overland route. In the town, there are many places where you can climb up for a great view.

The Khyber Pass: Those traveling through Afghanistan will enter the sub-continent here. This is the view looking back into Afghanistan. When security allows (sadly not often these days) it can also be visited on a day-trip from Peshawar.

Pakistani Truck Detail: Your first sight of the colorful Pakistani trucks will come after crossing the border from Iran to Taftan. Jump on one of these for the 12-16 hour journey to Quetta, through Baluchistan. Baluchistan is split between Iran and Pakistan, and can seem like a bit of a wild no-man's land, sandwiched between central Iran and the Pakistani Punjab.

Badshahi Mosque, Lahore: A favorite of mine in Lahore's amazing Old City.

Wagah Border: A scene from the closing ceremony, which takes place every evening. Cross the border just before sundown, and stay to watch it before moving on to Amritsar.

Golden Temple, Amritsar: You've made it, and this is your first stop in India. Not a bad reward!