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Istanbul to New Delhi over land
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This intinerary describes the overland route from Istanbul, Turkey, to New Delhi, India. This has been a legendary route since the sixties and was followed by thousands of travellers until the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the beginning of the civil war in Afghanistan in 1979.
Today it is a bigger challenge than it was before these political events and depending on the local political situation it may be possible or not. Borders between countries (India-Pakistan, Turkey-Iran) are closed from time to time. Of course, some places are no longer accessible for ordinary travellers without great risks for their safety.
The route is also part of the Silk Road used thoughout ancient times from Europe to Asia.
It involves crossing three countries from one extremity to the other, namely Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, and some parts of India. Going through Afghanistan may be possible or not depending on the changing political situation there and your evaluation of your personal safety and comfort.
Only information specific to this itinerary is available here. For details on places to visit along the way, see the specific pages.
Avoid going during Ramadan, unless you are prepared to fast yourself.
Police and officials in Eastern Turkey, Iran and Pakistan are quite touchy. Keep a low profile while dealing with them.
Avoid reaching a place in the middle of the night.
Western Turkey is visited by tourists from all over the world, so you will find all usual facilities here. But the further east you go, the fewer travellers you will meet, especially if you go away from the main transport facilities. So people there won't be so accustomed to tourists. However, this should not prevent you from visiting those places. See Turkey for all details.
Iran is not much visited by tourists, and that is one of the main reasons to go there. People are eager to meet foreigners and if you get used to the local way of life you will enjoy your trip.
Due to the civil war and the Taliban regime, almost nobody goes there unless they have a good reason to. However, since the end of the Taliban regime, NGO members and journalists can get a visa. See Afghanistan for details.
There have always been tourists in Pakistan, although many fewer at times when the country is making news. The land borders have been closed at times during the Afghan war and when diplomatic relations with India were suspended. See Pakistan for details.
India is a favorite with travellers, so in most cities you will get all the facilities you expect as a tourist. See India for details.
Iran, Pakistan and India require a visa for most travellers, so you have to get that beforehand. The embassy of Iran in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul now refuse to deliver visas if you are not resident in the country. The situation is the same for Pakistani and Indian embassies and consulates almost everywhere although there are a few exceptions.
A quick pervue (as of Nov. 2004) of the pages of the embassies of these countries in Washington puts the total cost of visas for Americans for these four countries at over $400.
Plan from 15 days to several months for a trip, depending on the time you spend at each place you pass through. Theoretically, jumping from one bus to another, it can be done in 11 or 12 days, but it would mean never stopping on the way! The length of the whole journey is 7000 to 8000 kilometers.
The actual timing is something like this:
Take your time. Avoid rushing from one place to the other.
In the 90s it used to cost much less than the air trip, even including all hotels and food on the way! It mainly depends on the currency rates of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. In 1992 the whole trip could be done in 5 weeks for about 350 US dollars.
As of Nov. 2004, total visa costs alone are over $400. In what probably is off-peak travel time (winter and early spring) round-trip flights from New York to Istanbul are under $400. It seems like the most cost-effective way to get back to the US is to take a one-way flight (around that same time frame) from Delhi to Tehran on Mahan Airlines for under $400 and then catch a bus/train back to Istanbul.
The route can be done in almost all seasons. A big part of the route in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan is at an altitude of over 1000 meters, so temperature there is comfortable even in the midst of summer and is temperate in winter. However, Eastern Turkey can be very cold in winter and the Indus Valley in Pakistan is very hot in summer (May to July).
The book to read before leaving or on the road is Danziger's travels: Beyond Forbidden Frontiers. It is the story of a hair-raising 18-month overland trip from London to Beijing in 1984 by Nick Danziger (ISBN 0586087060).
Istanbul is the biggest city in Turkey. Starting from there you have the choice of at least 3 modes of transport to Iran. First there are direct buses to Teheran run by Iranian companies. Straight, cheap, no hassle, but where's the fun? And staying two days in a bus is not the most comfortable way of transportation. Then there are Turkish buses going to Erzurum which are probably more comfortable than the Iranian buses. Lastly, you can take the train to Erzumrum.
There are also boats across the Black Sea to Trabzon.
Erzurum is the hub for visiting eastern Turkey. If you didn't get the direct bus to Teheran, you will have to change means of transport here. There are buses going to Dogubayazit (5 hours).
Dogubeyazit is the last town before the border. It is mainly a garrison town, but it is also the point of departure for the climbing of Mount Ararat. There are taxis going to the border.
The Turkey-Iran border is at an altitude of 2600 metres, at the foot of the legendary Mount Ararat 1 (http://www.turkeycountry.com/g_showimage.asp?picture=BT9802) where, according to the Bible, Noah ended up with his Ark.
Once upon a time there was a railway line going from Turkey to Iran. It seems to be gone with history... but service was reintruduced later: 2 (http://www.rajatrains.com/english/train_schedule/time_table_nonaxialtrains.asp?PATH_ID=2)
Going to Kerman, you have choice of buses or a railway line. There are buses twice a day, which take a full day or a night (about 15 hours). Trains are certainly more comfortable, but run only three times a week. There are even direct buses to Zahedan (22 hours).
If you are not in a hurry, going to Esfahan is worth the trouble. It is probably the most beautiful city of Iran.
Kerman is the terminus of the railway line and a hub of southern Iran. Buses to Zahedan take seven hours.
Zahedan is the last town before the border with Pakistan. 3 (http://www.iranchamber.com/cities/zahedan/zahedan.php) Take a taxi to the border. You have to bring food and water with you for 2 days. There is no restaurant before Quetta, 700 km across the desert.
The Iran-Pakistan border post, called Mirjave, is in the Kavir-e Loot desert, which means in the middle of nowhere. This is the real border between the East and the West.
The border closes in the early afternoon, and you can't stay here, there is no accommodation available. You will have to go back to Zahedan if you reach the border too late.
Once you cross the border, you have to wait for a bus. From here driving is on the left.
Don't look for a currency change office, there are none. However, you can certainly change some cash (Iranian rials or US dollars) with some youths sitting outside the police border building. You will have to bargain. They don't know any English, but they certainly know arithmetic and how to use a pocket calculator.
Here again, there was a railway line and trains going to Quetta a long time ago. You can still see the platform in the middle of the desert.
Quetta is the first place you reach when entering Pakistan coming from Iran.
From here, there are direct trains to Lahore.
There are buses and taxis going to the border. In January 2004, the Lahore-New Delhi train was restored. It is probably more comfortable than the bus, but slower, as it used to stop at the border for hours while the police checked people and luggage. Also trains are much less frequent.
The Pakistan-India border was closed and reopened several times during recent years, so check beforehand. In January 2004, the Lahore-New Delhi train was restored.
Alternative route through Afghanistan
There are daily trains to and from Teheran. Buses take 14 hours to Teheran. Buses to Taybad take about four hours.
There are minibuses and taxis to the border, called Eslam Ghale, 11 km away.
From the Afghan side, there are buses to Herat.
Herat is a big, rich Afghan city, influenced by Iranian culture. It is well developed because of trade with Iran and in a good shape compared to other Afghan cities. The people are very friendly and hospitable to foreigners and are also more religious than people in Kabul.
No tourism exists in Herat, there is but a small community of foreign workers from Europe or other Western countries. They are easy to find by asking in the German or Indian consulate or hanging around in the Marco Polo Hotel.
Most Afghan roads are very poor. You need a four wheel drive vehicle with a winch to even consider driving on them.
One exception is the main highway from Herat in the West to Kabul in the East. This swings widely South via Kandahar; the center of the country is impassable mountains.
There is also a good highway from Kabul North through the Hindu Kush (killer of Hindus) to Mazar-e Sharif and the border of Tajikistan in Central Asia. This road contains the Salang tunnel, longest in the world. It was built with Russian aid and then used for the Russian invasion.
This is the main city of Southern Afghanistan.
It was a major stronghold of Taliban, and among the last places to surrender in the recent war.
You can go South from here to Quetta, Pakistan.
The way from Kabul to Peshawar takes about ten hours.
From Kabul to the border
Buses start early and need about eight hours to reach the border. The road is not in a very good shape so don't expect a very comfortable travel. The price is between 200-250 Af. (below 4 Euro) if you pick up a mini van bus with ten to twenty other people together. Tall people are sitting more comfortable at the - sometimes little more expensive - front seats.
Taxis are faster and more expensive.
The border is closing at the noon time.
From the border to Peshawar
Busses and taxis ends at the border. People have to cross the border on foot and take a second bus or taxi. Foreigners (non-Pakistani or non-Afghani) have to get a permission to cross the tribal areas are which are located between the border and Peshawar and is controlled by tribes and not by the Pakistan government. The permission is for free but a soldier will take you with him together in a taxi. The soldier will cost about 100 Pakistani (1.4 Euro) and the taxi the double. The way goes through the legendary Khyper Pass.
The travel seems to be secure for travellers who know what they are doing. The traffic is the biggest danger thus it could be recommended to travel on a friday when the traffic is less than at the other days. If possible take a good driver you know already. I think busses drive more save than taxis because they are slower.
Peshawar is a very huge Afghan city, albeit in Pakistan. Many people say they are Afghan's but actually possess a Pakistani passport. The city has a lot of traffic and seems to have a good economic situation.
Places to stay
Places to visit
Other places to visit along the way
Some other places are worth a visit, but you don't necessarily have to pass through them on this journey.