Wednesday, November 5, 2008

About Mumbai

Mumbai is the bubblegum glamour of Bollywood cinema, shopping malls full of designer labels, cricket on the Oval Maidan, promenading families eating bhelpuri on the beach at Chowpatty, red double-decker buses queuing in grinding traffic jams and the infamous cages of the red-light district.

This pungent drama is played out against a Victorian townscape more reminiscent of a prosperous 19th-century English industrial city than anything you'd expect to find on the edge of the Arabian Sea. It's a city with vibrant streetlife, India's best nightlife, and a wealth of bazaars.

The best time to explore Mumbai is between the months of September and April, when the weather is relatively dry and cool. From June to September the skies open, sometimes with catastrophic results - the floods of 2005 killed nearly a thousand and left thousands more homeless. During the monsoon season, ferries to Elephanta Island and beyond stop, and trips to Sanjay Gandhi National Park and the forts and cave temples around Mumbai are often impossible. YOu might also want to avoid the months just before the monsoon breaks, when temperatures can top 40ºC (140ºF).

Without doubt, the biggest spectacle in the Mumbai calendar is Ganesh Chaturthi, an 11-day Hindu festival that rocks the city every August/September. This colourful event reaches a climax when huge images of the elephant-headed god are immersed in the sea, most notably off Chowpatty Beach. The largest effigies are hauled into the river by crane and all are painted in surreal, fluorescent colours.


Mumbai is prone to high temperatures, high humidity and tropical rain, though the climate is tempered by the influence of the Arabian Sea. Rainfall averages a soggy 2200mm (85in) per year, with the heaviest falls coming in the monsoon season from June to September. Recent years have seen massive floods, cited by many as evidence of global warming. January is the coolest month, though 12°C (53°F) is about as low as it goes. March and October tend to swelter, with temperatures rising as high as 38°C (100°F).

Moving around in Mumbai

Mumbai sprawls across a series of islands jutting out into the Arabian Sea from the west coast of India. Although it feels like a single land mass, the city is criss-crossed by creeks and streams, and large parts of southern Mumbai are built on land reclaimed from Back Bay. The touch of the British Empire is evident in the glorious colonial architecture of the old town at the southern end of the isthmus. Even today, Mumbai seems a world apart from the rest of Maharashtra, despite being the state capital. The old part of Mumbai is concentrated at the southern end of the peninsula. Fort was the centre of the British colonial quarter, served by the docks in nearby Colaba, and the streets are still lined with stately colonial mansions and civic buildings. Travellers gravitate towards Colaba, where you'll find most of the cheap hotels, excellent and inexpensive food and accessible nightlife. Fronting onto Mumbai Harbour are two of the city's best landmarks, the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower (commonly known as the Taj Mahal Hotel). Boats leave from the quayside to Elephanta Island, with its famous Hindu cave temples.

East of Fort is Nariman Point, an upmarket area of modern office towers and government buildings, built on reclaimed land facing onto the Arabian Sea. From here, Marine Drive curls north around Back Bay to famous Chowpatty Beach and the headland at Malabar Hill. Trains from the northern suburbans terminate in Fort at Churchgate Station and Victoria Terminus (aka Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), perhaps the most distinctive building in all of British India. Long-distance trains run from either Victoria Terminus or Mumbai Central Station, further north, near Tardeo.

To the north are the posh suburbs of Greater Mumbai - Breach Candy, Bandra and Juhu - and also some of the largest slums. Here you'll find the two airports, Chhatrapati Shivaji International and the domestic Santa Cruz. In the far north of Mumbai is Sanjay Gandhi National Park, a vast area of protected woodland home to ancient Buddhist cave temples.

Getting There

Mumbai beats Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai for international air traffic. It also has the busiest network of domestic flights, including flights to Aurangabad near the Ellora and Ajanta caves. National carrier Indian Airlines has been joined by various private carriers which are often more reliable - Jet, Air Sahara and Kingfisher Airlines are all good companies. The international terminal (Chhatrapati Shivaji) and the domestic terminal (Santa Cruz) are 30km (19mi) and 26km (16mi) respectively from downtown Mumbai. There are regular free shuttle buses between the two terminals.

Long-distance buses depart from the state road transport terminal opposite Mumbai's Central railway station. It's fairly chaotic, and there are almost no signs or information available in English. The state bus companies of Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh all have offices here.

Two railway systems operate out of Mumbai. Central Railways handles services to the east and south, plus a few trains to the north. Western Railways has services to the north from Churchgate and Central stations. Trains travel frequently between Mumbai and Agra, Ahmedabad, Aurangabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi, Kochi, Pune and Varanasi.

Taxis operate 24 hours a day from the airport, though they add a surcharge at night. A taxi from either airport to Colaba costs around Rs350.00 - be ready to bargain and pay extra for your luggage. Autorickshaws are a cheaper option - it's only a ten minute ride from either airport to Andheri or Vile Parle railway station, where you can catch a train into the centre.

Minibuses outside the arrival hall offer free shuttle services to the domestic airport and Juhu hotels.

  • bus

    Numerous private operators and state governments run long-distance buses to and from Mumbai. Generally, private operators have faster and more comfortable services and simpler booking procedures. Private long-distance buses depart for all points from Dr Anadrao Nair Rd, near Mumbai Central train station. Destinations include Goa, Pune, Aurangabad, Mahabaleshwar, Ahmedabad , Udaipur and Bangalore. More convenient for Goa and southern destinations are the private buses that depart twice a day from Mata Ramabai Ambedkar Rd (behind Crawford Market). It's best to purchase tickets directly from agents with pavement stalls clustered in either of these areas. Long-distance state-run buses depart from Mumbai Central bus terminal, close to Mumbai Central train station. Buses service major towns in Maharashtra and neighbouring states. They're marginally cheaper and more frequent than the private services, but they're also decrepit, crowded and uncomfortable, with little chance of air-con. Destinations include Goa, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad and Aurangabad.

  • train

    Three train systems operate out of Mumbai, but the main two that are important for overseas visitors are Central Railways and Western Railways. Central Railways, operating mainly from Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST, formerly Victoria Terminus), covers services to the east and south, plus a few trains to the north. The reservation centre is at the back of CST where the taxis gather. Tourist-quota tickets are available at Counter 52 on the 1st floor but can only be bought during the 24 hours before the date of travel. Indrail passes can be bought at Counter 7.

    A few Central Railways trains, including the Chennai Express (the fastest train to Chennai), depart from Dadar, a few stations north of CST, or Churchgate (or Lokmanya Tilak), 16km (10mi) north of CST on the suburban main line. You can book tickets for all these trains at CST. Western Railways runs services to the north (including Rajasthan and Delhi) out of Mumbai Central (MC) train station (often still called Bombay Central). The easiest place to make bookings for Western Railways trains is at the crowded reservation centre opposite Churchgate train station (Mon-Sun 08:00-20:00). The foreign tourist quota counter is upstairs next to the Government of India tourist office, but the same rules apply as at CST station. Credit cards are accepted at Counter 20. There's a reservation centre adjacent to Mumbai Central train station, but it doesn't sell tourist-quota tickets.

  • plane

    Mumbai is the main international gateway to South India. It also has the busiest network of domestic flights, with services to more than 30 cities daily. Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (, known as Sahar, is 30km/19mi from Nariman Point in central Mumbai. The domestic airport, usually known as Santa Cruz, is about 4km (2.5mi) away. A free shuttle bus connects the two.

    The international airport has two arrivals halls with foreign-exchange counters, a Government of India tourist office (tel: 28325331; Hall 2A), a hotel reservation counter (tel: 26155239) and a prepaid taxi booth - all are open 24 hours. The domestic airport has two terminals a couple of minutes' walk apart. Both terminals have foreign-exchange bureaus, ticketing counters and a restaurant/bar. Just to confuse the issue, domestic sectors of Air India routes depart from the international airport. City Info has a list of major international airline offices in Mumbai. Travel agencies are a better bet for booking international flights, and will reconfirm your flight for a small fee.

  • Getting Around

    Mumbai has one of the best public bus systems of any major Indian city. However, its red double-decker buses must run the gauntlet of the city's unbelievable traffic congestion. More useful, though no less crowded, is Mumbai's extensive network of suburban electric trains, but avoid rush hours when trains carry five times their maximum safe limit of passengers and you may be carried off several stops early, or miss your stop entirely, because of the heaving mass of humanity.

    Mumbai has a huge fleet of metered black-and-yellow taxis but, contrary to the practice in most other Indian cities, no autorickshaws are allowed in the city centre. Taxi meters are invariably out of date, so fares are calculated by using a conversion card. Note that taxis outside tourist sites and entertainment venues may ask for flat rates or refuse short journeys.

  • bus

    Mumbai's single- and double-decker buses are good for travelling short distances in the city. Fares around South Mumbai are cheap so have some small change available and pay the conductor once you're aboard. The service is run by BEST, which has its main depot in Colaba. Just jumping on a double-decker bus (such as 103) is a good, cheap way to have a look around South Mumbai. Route numbers and destinations on the front of buses are written in Marathi; English signs are on the side.

  • car

    Cars are generally hired for an eight-hour day and with a maximum of 80km (50mi); additional charges rack up if you exceed these limits. Agents at the Apollo Bunder ticket booths near the Gateway of India can arrange a non-AC Maruti with driver for a half-day of sightseeing for around Rs550.00 (going as far as Mahalaxmi and Malabar Hill). Regular taxi drivers in this area accept a similar price.

  • taxi

    Taxis are the most convenient way to get around the city and in South Mumbai drivers almost always use the meter without prompting and give the correct change; autorickshaws are confined to the suburbs north of Mahim Creek. Taxi meters are out of date, so the fare is calculated using a conversion chart, which all drivers carry - ask to see it at the end of the journey. The rough conversion rate during the day is around 13 times the meter reading. It's about 25% more expensive between and . 'Cool Cabs' operate correctly metered, blue air-con taxis. They're about a third more expensive than regular cabs and can be booked by telephone. If you're north of Mahim Creek and not heading into the city, it's best to catch autorickshaws. They're metered and also use a conversion chart. The fare is roughly 7.5 times the meter reading.

  • ferry

    PNP (tel: 22885220) and Maldar Catamarans (tel: 22829695) run regular ferries to Mandwa, useful for access to Alibaug, Chaul and other parts of the Konkan coast without the hassle of the long bus trip out of Mumbai. Their ticket offices are beside the Gateway of India. These boats stop running during the monsoon.

  • train

    Mumbai is virtually the only place in India where it's worth taking trains for travel within a city. The service is efficient, easy to navigate (there are three main lines) but, unsurprisingly, overcrowded. The most useful service operates from Churchgate heading north to stations such as Charni Rd (for Chowpatty Beach), Mumbai Central, Mahalaxmi (dhobi ghats), Bandra (Bandra shopping), Vile Parle (Juhu and domestic airport), Andheri (international airport) and Borivali (Sanjay Gandhi National Park). A couple of other suburban lines operate from CST, servicing places such as Byculla (for Victoria Gardens), Thane, Dadar, and as far as Neral (for Matheran). Trains begin operating just after and run until almost . Avoid rush hours, when trains are jam-packed, even in 1st class. Women should take advantage of the ladies-only carriages. Trains stop at suburban train stations for only about 10 seconds so be ready to leap for the platform - and watch your valuables.

  • Disabled Travellers

    Mumbai's crowded public transport, crush of people and poor urban planning can test even the hardiest traveller. If you have a physical disability or are vision-impaired, these pose even more of a challenge. However, seeing the way the mobility-impaired locals whizz through city traffic in modified bicycles proves that nothing is impossible.

    Steps and stairs are major obstacles. Most buildings are reached via steps, and elevators - where they exist- often stop inexplicably on mezzanines between floors. Pavement ramps are non-existent and taxis have a lot less space for wheelchairs since the introduction of environmentally-friendly LPG canisters in the boot. However, there are a few wheelchair-friendly restaurants, offices and hotels (mostly top end). Try to book ground-floor hotel rooms and if you use crutches, bring along spare rubber caps for the tips, as they can wear down quickly in India. If your mobility is considerably restricted you may like to consider travelling with an able-bodied companion. Hiring a car with driver will make moving around a whole lot easier than relying on taxis and public transport.

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