The Great Circular Indian Railway Challenge

I cooked this up as guest post, which was something of a futile task, but it makes a convenient condensed diary from the Creator’s viewpoint of the India trip.

Day 1

It is 8 O’Clock in the evening, 17th February 2011.
I have somehow found myself, after 2 years of planning, with 16 other people, milling about Mumbai Central station waiting to embark on something that isn’t supposed to be a very good idea. i.e. travelling for two solid weeks around the very extremities of Indian railways to the furthest points of the compass with a huge group of people. I have been told that the trains wont turn up or arrive on time so it’s unlikely we’ll get more than a few trains down our route before it all unfolds. If we miss any train then there is simply no way I’ll be able to fit all of us onto sleeper trains that need booking weeks in advance. And even if we do manage to stick to the schedule, we’ll all be too exhausted, sick or hungry to want to carry on. I have never even met most of the group other than through the internet.  Most of them have never visited India before, and even if they have, only a couple of us have ever been on a long distance railway marathon like this in any country.  None of us, including myself, think that we’re all going to make it.

To start the party I have hired an Indian wedding band. It sounded like a novel idea at the time. They start playing right outside the main entrance and make an ear splitting racket. After virtually getting both myself and the band arrested, we are quickly shooed on to the streets outside. From there I continue, with absolutely no success, to engage my newly acquired travel companions in an impromptu wedding dance. Those that have known me for decades are unfazed. Those that haven’t just gawk in horror. This is going to be every bit as hard as I first thought.

Day 2
We are in South Western Gujarat. Our Saurashtra Mail is about to arrive at Dwarka, home of Lord Krishna and also the most westerly point of the Indian rail network. I have arranged in advance for a bus to be waiting for us at the station. This is initially to take us into the town, but more critically to then take us back up to Jamnagar in order that we don’t have to wait a whole night in Dwarka for the next train. There is a balance with this kind of high tempo train travel between sticking to the rails, and keeping up momentum. I have elected for the latter, but if the bus isn’t sitting there for us then, after just one train, the whole expedition is in smithereens. To my immense relief the bus is waiting patiently.

Dwarka is one of those countless Indian temple towns that, if you are randomly roving about the sub-continent, you can arrive at as we have and not meet another tourist. Well, as long as you haven’t brought another dozen and a half of them with you. Almost typically, there turns out to be a convenient wedding procession that very day. If you have noticed Okha on the map and think that you’d like to go there “just for the hell of it”, do yourself a massive favour and get off two stops earlier at Dwarka.

I instruct the entire group to shower in the hotel rooms that I have ordered. The younger guys aren’t very happy about paying for this privilege. There are also five young ladies in their 20s who have taken up my promotion of the trip as an ideal opportunity for single women to do extensive Indian rail travel without suffering too much unwanted attention.

After spending a rapid couple of hours wandering around the town and temple, it is time to go and we all board my nice bus for the ride 70 klicks back up to Jamnagar. I have made an arrangement with the driver to find us a Gujarati thali restaurant. Gujarati food, when good, is excellent. Jamnagar is a major industrial town and I have assumed we should be able to find something ideal and unforgettable. In practice we end up somewhere unsuitable and immediately forgettable.

Day 3
We are in Ahmedabad, capital of Gujarat. My first, and ultimately only casualty, admits that he’s throwing the towel in. Apart from being a rather charming guy, he’s also a professional photographer, and I am loath to loose him. There is another expert picture taker in the group, but he’s turned up with the novel idea that he’s going to blog the trip live with his chum, a world first apparently. Gosh, I wish I’d thought of that. I am now reliant on the other total amateurs in the group to provide picture content for my daily blog posts.

We don’t really have enough time to leave the station. The next train, the Ahmedabad to Jammu Tawi Express, or ADI-JAT in Indian train-speak, is one of our monster trains and we are all bracing ourselves. We do have time to make use of the station showers, and even the youngies on the trip seem happy to have a wash.

On recent previous trips to India the litter problem has appalled me. I had suggested to the group as a whole, and instructed my close friends, that we should buy tiffin boxes in Mumbai and we fill them with food at the stations and avoid leaving our own litter footprint strewn across India. The food available at major Indian stations these days is significantly better than it was 20 and certainly 30 years ago. There is a chain called Comesum in North India which is quite excellent. I fill our tiffins to the brim with a range of vegetarian yummies, and we board the train north.

Day 4
After the previous afternoon’s epic rail voyage through western Indian Punjab, we awake for the third time on our trip aboard the train. One of the Americans isn’t feeling too good, but by and large everyone else seems to have got the hang of life on the rails. I now have the second of my bus cheats awaiting. In order that we get to Amritsar with enough time to get to the border at Wagah for the famous daily border closing activities, it is necessary for us to get off the train a little earlier before it veers off on a circuitous route to the Sikh pilgrimage centre. Unlike at Dwarka, if this bus isn’t waiting for us then it’s not going to be super mission critical, but I have already paid for it in full. We climb off in the middle of nowhere and I scurry down the platform to see if I’ve been stood up. The bus is waiting for us of course. It will not only take us into Amritsar, but also to Wagah and back, and even take anyone who wants into the temple area later. It’s a bargain, and some. The hotel rooms aren’t quite as cheap, and at this stage there is real friction growing between those that have $200 spend on a two week rail odyssey, and those that have not.

The border ceremony at Wagah is a hoot. I have to blag the two American travel bloggers into the special foreigners area as they had decided not to bring any ID with them.

Our train out of Amritsar isn’t till midnight, and we all have the entire evening to investigate the spectacular Golden Temple. This is one of the most serene experiences of this or any other trip. It looks all the better in the evening, the temple really glows. My inner circle also make our way to a joint called Kesar da Dabar, a highly recommended eatery. Alas the food is about 90% butter, but the adventure to find it buried in the back streets of inner Amritsar is worth it alone, and you can always make do with a kulfi (Indian ice cream) when you get there.

Day 5
We awake early in the morning at Jammu, winter capital of Kashmir. On the platform there are seemingly three Kalashnikov toting soldiers for every passenger.  Our northernmost extreme is Udhampur, a few stops up the line, which is as far as the railway up to Kashmir has made it so far. There is an unconnected section of railway in northern Kashmir, but we’ve chickened out of doing that bit as it has a habit of getting blown up. I have made an arrangement with a hotel in Udhampur to provide us with a small number of overloaded rooms for washing, and some food.

It is now becoming increasingly difficult to keep everyone on the same budget sheet. We return to the station for our train back to Delhi. Back at Jammu, the train conductor protests that he cant find the berths for the budget half of the group. One of them then unilaterally orders that half of the group off the train on the grounds that negotiating with IR train staff is a futile task. Disaster is avoided with seconds to spare, the berths are located and group integrity is preserved, but only barely.

Day 6
We arrive in Delhi. I have arranged for rooms in a hotel in Paharganj, the bustling district right outside Delhi’s main station. The rooms aren’t cheap though, at least not by local standards and the often wildly inaccurate estimates of the Lonely Planet guide. More friction.

I  have to re-establish my internet connection. If you are travelling round India and have a Vodafone USB dongle, make sure you don’t throw your paperwork away. Each quadrant of India is a completely different subsidiary. Your connection will stop working and you will need to at least phone the call centre with your contract details. If you’ve chucked the paper work you’ll need to stump up another $15 and get a new one. We indulge in a pair of egg McMuffins each.

Day 7
After leaving Delhi in the early afternoon, we are on the Dibrugarh Rajdhani to the easternmost end of the network, all day and all night, all the following day, and the following night too. As we climb aboard this premium of Indian trains, one of the longest services in the country, we are all cock-a-hoop. They are a touch plusher than the normal expresses, and the food comes as part of the deal. If you are on a railpass, as of course we all were, it’s free food. The next 48 hours will clearly be free of budget complications if nothing else.

But there are a series of downsides to travelling on Rajdhani’s. The first, and most serious, is that the train hardly stops, and when it does it doesn’t do so for very long. This completely defeats what is the best part of travelling on an Indian train, which is getting off at the stations. A normal express will stay for at least 10 minutes, often much longer. You can get off and get yourself a trackside breakfast, or just some chai, or just mill about. On a Rajdhani you can’t do any of these things. There is no chai wallah boarding the train, no cool drinks wallah, no Indian snacks wallah. The food, while free and acceptable, rapidly becomes monotonous. There is also another ironic downside. The staff on these trains expect to be tipped by tourists. If you look young and naive then the staff will expect you to tip accordingly. If they don’t get what they expect they are likely throw your pitiful 10 rupee note back in your face.

Day 8
At dawn we are deposited in Dibrugarh, just a few hundred meters shy of the great Brahmaputra river. There’s not a lot going on, even the local chai stall hasn’t booted up for the day yet. As we while away the three hours for the local train to take us the last leg on our mission to the very most eastern end of the network at Ledo, a very sorry looking chap with cuts all over him comes and lies down in a space nearby. It is one of those incidents when most of us become very uncomfortable and look the other way and try to blank out some of the sadder aspects of this beautiful country. One of my friends, who just happens to be a health care professional dealing with learning disabilities, immediately switches into pro-mode and whips out the first aid kit and begins to tend to him. Some of the girls offer their assistance too. It is near to train time so, partly through my shepherding instinct to get everyone on the train, partly to reduce the crowd who are amassing to witness Andrew perform this novel activity of tending for the less fortunate, and largely cos I am developing a lump in my throat, I shift off. Andy gets the station master to ring up for a doctor, and they all have to run to catch the train.

It doesn’t take a lot of research to find out that the only thing to do at Ledo is to go a few more miles east, by road, to the colliery at Tipong. After giving the group as a whole the ultimatum “do what I am doing, the day will cost you £15, or do something else”, I seem to have whittled the gang down to a couple of rickshaws. By the time we set off to the colliery we are all but back up to a complete complement. We spend an hour at this charming place. I know charming and colliery don’t normally sit well together, but it really is cute, with temples over the pit shafts. The old steam engines are now past their last steaming days, even if you are visiting on a specialist rail enthusiast’s trip. But the staff kindly wheel out David the steam engine and we take photos of it. They don’t ask for a contribution, but I charge everyone a few dollars for this privilege and hand it over to the foreman.

The deal cut back at the station was that those who don’t fancy the next phase, a more expensive trip to a small “eco resort”, can just hang about in Ledo for a few hours and catch the train that is sat waiting for them on the platform. I now find myself with over laden rickshaws trundling along very bumpy roads. Neither budgeteer nor flashpacker are happy with the arrangement. After our ethnic meal and warm beer we then all squeeze into just too few people-carriers back to Tinsukia Junction.

Day 9
The original plan for day 8 was, on leaving the colliery at Tipong, to return directly to Dibrugarh by road and cross the mighty river to a place called Dhemaji on the north bank. From there we would catch the Arunachal Express back west. I have to this day yet to find anyone from outside the region who has ever travelled on this train. The area is plagued with racial and ethnic tensions. Shortly after I actually booked the route the requisite three months hence, the line was closed as a result of a terrorist attack. Even before this I knew we were dealing with just too many unresolved variables, so I have decided to build in a contingency day in Darjeeling. If we take an extra day trying to rail or road it out of Eastern Assam, all will not be lost. As a result of the closure of the line, we are now going to be in Darjeeling for two nights for sure. Worse still, the previous monsoon season has resulted in the lower section of the Darjeeling Railway being broken in two by a humungous landslide, so we aren’t even able to catch the little old railway up the hill either. It is still the case that the Darjeeling Hill Railway doesn’t actually go up the hill anymore.

On arrival at New Jalpaiguri Junction the group splinters into fivesomes and we all make our way up the hill in 4x4s.  My sub group detour to liaise with a convention of the Darjeeling Hill Railway Society, before arriving a touch late in the famous old hill station after the pretty uncomfortable alternative route that you are now forced to make up the hill. Darjeeling has a range of accommodation. The nice places are stupidly dear and need booking in advance, but there are budget places to be found. At the top end of town is the famous Windamere, which at £100 a shot was deemed too severe for even those with an arbitrary budget. I have found a rather elegant alternative in The Shangri-La Regency. It is still about £15 a night each, but as these are our only two nights off the train it is well worth the expense. It really is very comfy inside. Day 10 is spent doing not very much, and consists of absolutely no trains whatsoever.

Day 11
Our job for the day is for everyone to get back down the hill to New Jalpaiguri, where the trip proper will recommence on the Darjeeling Mail to Kolkata. My sub group choose to perform the first stage of this on the “Joy Train” steam service to Ghum, which is the highest point on Indian Railways. While it is shockingly dear by local standards at about $5, it is nevertheless a unique experience and well worth being stung for, even if you aren’t big on trains.

Day 12
The Darjeeling Mail arrives, as did all our trains, to all intents and purposes bang on time at Sealdah, Kolkata at 6am. Some of the group bravely set off to visit the Mother Teresa stuff. I elect to go for a leisurely river crossing of the Howrah. The ferry boats don’t actually start till pushing 8am, so we end up sipping chai for quite some time in an eery calm. Calcutta is surely waking up somewhere, but it isn’t showing much sign of it at BBD Bagh ferry. Finally, our ferry across the Howrah arrives, and the 6 of us, and one local, board the large boat and slide silently across the great river beneath the famous bridge, still a world apart from everything I remember of the city 30 years ago. This all changes abruptly as we stride off the ferry on the far side and into the station. Instantly we are flung into the Kolkata rush hour as we cross the station to the hotel I have picked nearby. We have to fight, almost literally, to make progress. My target, The Howrah Hotel, could be a really swanky mid range hotel, with exquisite tiling and breezy verandas. Alas it’s a horrid dump of a place chopped up into far too many tiny little rooms, most of which are empty of course, and run by farcically over bureaucratic staff who seem to be locked into a bygone age.  But it serves it’s purpose as a rest and recuperation base, from which we can make regular trips to something that is worth visiting Kolkata for all on it’s own. The city is renowned for it’s food, and the Howrah Station Food Plaza is a cheap and excellent experience. I make several trips there as the food is so good. The chaat, which is a sweet and sour crispy and yogurt concoction and a speciality of Bengal, comes highly recommended.

The Coramandal Express to Chennai is our next train, leaving at 14:50. If you are ever catching this train make sure you give yourself enough time to get to the far end of the huge station, it leaves from almost the very last platform. Our intrepid sightseeing group leave themselves barely enough time to first get across the bridge which of course is in a permanent state of gridlock, and then have to run flat out through the station. They make it onto the train, but only just.

Day 13
We only have a few hours in Chennai, this being the tightest connection of the whole trip at less than 2½ hours. This is enough time to catch a local train between our arrival and departure stations, have an obligatory wash in the first class waiting rooms, grab the largest dosa in town, and a down a few beers, before boarding the next train to Rameswaram, the most coastal station in India. I lose one of my flashpackers at this point who has to zip back off into his business world, but gain 2 more internet acquaintances for the last few days back to Mumbai. So the group is now 17 strong again.

Day 14
Along with Ghum, the highest point on Indian railways, I had wanted to also include the lowest point. None of India’s network is below sea level, but Rameswaram, which is actually an island along what was once a land bridge to Sri Lanka, is arguably as sea level as you can get. It is also, paired with Dwarka on the western extreme at the start of the trip, an appropriate geographical counterbalance and another of India’s most sacred pilgrimages. On arrival, one of us rather foolishly decides that it would be a good idea to take the tourist donkey carts. I still bear the scars.  Due to it’s religious status, getting a beer here is not an easy task, and the only place in town appears to be the Hotel Tamil Nadu, which is where I direct my budgeteers.  There is only one room available here, so those who can afford it move off for elsewhere.

The sacred temple which forms the centre of the small town is, of course, barefeet only. One of the group is unfortunate enough to have his shoes stolen from the depository at the gate, but also unwise enough to then walk round the outside of the temple, in mid day, barefooted. Thus blistering his poor feet which subsequently become infected. As a general piece of advice, from someone who has made similar mistakes several times, NEVER allow your feet to become infected in the tropics. If they get cut, bitten or blistered seek medical attention immediately.

In the evening we make our way back to the station and our night train to Cape Kanyakumari, the most southerly point of India and it’s railways.

Day 15
The day begins long before dawn, as the train arrives ready for pilgrims to witness the daybreak at the Cape. I must say, it’s an odd place. Quite packed with tourists at this horrendously early hour. Kitsch bric-à-brac stalls line the edge of the beach. Alas, the weather is cloudy and we don’t get a genuine sunrise over the sea. Our next task is to go by road up to Nargecoil Junction for our local train to Trivandrum, from where we intend to visit Kovalam. The rickshaw ride is about 25km, and the guy wants Rs300 to take four of us, which is one too many people to be legal. It is a fun ride, with yours truly riding shotgun. We need to take a detour as the main road is shut, and the ride is all the more pleasant for it. To my utter astonishment, arriving just a few minutes later, is a sub group of six of my budgeteers. I am finding it difficult to comprehend how they’ve managed to cram six adults into a normal two person rickshaw for 15 miles, and then have the audacity to complain at being charged $1 each for the ride.

The journey up to Trivandrum by local train is typically oversubscribed, but all the more an experience as a result. Kovalam is perhaps one of the biggest shocks of the whole trip. I guess my next piece of advice should be, “never go back to an idyllic beach you discovered 30 years ago with any expectation of recognizing any of it”. We cab it back into Trivandrum and regroup at the excellent Indian Coffee House. This unique spiral building is quite fantastic and a must do if you are ever in the area. It has a breezy internal air conditioning system as a result of it’s cunning design. The coffee and ice creams are pretty damn good too.

We then make our way across the road to the station for our final train, the Rajdhani back to Mumbai.

Day 16
After depositing some of the group in Goa in the afternoon, the majority complete the course and arrive at Panvel station on the outskirts of Mumbai at just past 6pm on Saturday 6th March 2011. We have covered over 12,000 km in a few hours under 2 weeks and 1 day. The rest of the group peel away back into Mumbai, while my inner circle make their way to the nearby hill station of Matheran. This gem of a spot boasts a world class narrow gauge railway, is free of all motor transport, and also has valid claim to be the cleanest place in all India. Mumbai accommodation is extremely dear and of dubious quality. It costs about as much in a taxi to get from the airport to Neral station at the foot of the railway up to Matheran as it does to downtown Mumbai. If you are entering India via Mumbai and intend on spending a few days adjusting before moving off on your adventures, I can recommend litter free Matheran as an ideal spot from which to acclimatise. It has remarkably few western tourists, but is very popular with middle class Indians and you can easily and cheaply go on day trips to Mumbai.

The total cost of the trip, including all train bookings, a bespoke T-shirt, several buses, numerous taxis and rickshaws, 2 nights in a swanky hotel in Darjeeling, half a dozen hotel wash stops, food, and all beverages, and a wedding band, worked out at under £300 each in flashpacker class. I lost one guy early on. In fairness he was already suffering from food poisoning when he arrived in my care.

None of our trains were late. I had written software to monitor the arrival times of our trains via the useful internet site that displays them. The data I amassed over 14 months said that nothing was going to be late unless there was a serious natural disaster. I wasn’t sure if I should really believe my statistics, but they proved quite valid. Indian trains are very reliable as long as you take ones that run more than once a week. On-train food is quite bearable. On-platform food, at the big stations, ranges from really quite good to really quite outstanding. ACII carriages are on the whole clean. The loos aren’t exactly TGV standard, but you get used to them. No country on earth runs enough spare capacity on sleeper trains to allow you to just walk up and book on the day of travel with more than a slim chance of getting a berth. India is no exception to this rule.

I did it all for a heck of a lot less than nothing at all. And with the help and generosity of the other flashpackers, we raised £4,300 for Railway Children. The two American bloggers did however immediately publish an e-book describing their experience as the trip of a lifetime. Several of the other budgeteers decorate their profile pages with photographs of the trip.

I have now taken the concept and applied it to my native Europe. Next July, 12 close friends and I will travel by train to 23 of Europe’s capitals, and the arctic circle, and also take what I consider as the greatest railway ride there is anywhere, the line over the Alps from Tirano to Chur via St Moritz. We will do all this in just over 2 weeks. All the tickets, hostels, a couple of buses and even a short arctic plane ride, totals at barely over £1,100. You can read more about that project here https://gcerc.wordpress.com, and you can read more about the India trip, including reports from other people on the trip, here http://gcirc.wordpress.com.


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