Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Train Journeys in India

A long time ago, I looked forward to summer vacations when schools would close for a month. Every year at this time we went to Calcutta, Allahabad or Kanpur to visit my many aunts, uncles and grand-parents. We would travel by railroad for two days to cover the 2000 kms distance from Mysore. This wasn't unusual; very few people took a flight when traveling within India those days.

A Train and the Indian MonsoonThe long train journey was a joyful experience. I was absorbed by the fascinating sights and sounds during the train ride. Air-conditioned coaches were rare, which meant open windows (and dusty faces); we kids could stick our faces against the windows in an attempt to see the rest of the train winding its way through hills, valleys, forests and creeks. Photo credit: Train in the rains by Bramha.

I don't think I have seen as much of India as I did during those train journeys, albeit through a child's eye. When I was older and travelled alone, I would get down at every station to stretch, sip tea from earthen cups and soak in the sights and sounds. Every station was a little different: there were large 'railway junctions' in towns otherwise unknown, vendors hawking foodstuff special to that town: oranges in Nagpur, pethas in Agra, and mihidana in Burdwan.

A Train Snaking Across IndiaThe cries of the chaiwallahs, the wiry porters in their red shirts, the myriad vendors and fellow travellers rushing by, all fascinated me. I never really noticed the dust, the flies, the stinking toilets, the sweaty crowds, or the malfunctioning ac during those days.

Photo credits: Snaking train by Arjun, Blue train by Vinu, Toy Train by Bishal Rai. Please click on the pictures to go to their respective Flickr pages.

Years later, I bought myself a first class ticket on the Rajdhani Express from Delhi to Calcutta. To me that was the epitome of luxury travel. A completely air-conditioned train, the Rajdhani was quite a status symbol those days. The train reached Calcutta at least five hours faster than every the other train. The experience on the Rajdhani was closer to that of a flight: cleaner, less noisy, and less dusty! It was also the beginning of the end of my relationship with Indian Railways. I now valued time and comfort over everything else, and so began choosing flights over trains.

Indian RailwaysIt's been a long time since those days. I took the train during a recent journey to Goa after a gap of several years. It was fun reliving my childhood memories once more. Not much has changed on the Indian railroad during these years. I have! I now notice the dust, the flies and malfunctioning Ac's even as I enjoy the splendid views of the lush green countryside. The earthen cups for chai have been replaced with plastic ones. I see more foreigners (mostly from Israel) in the train. Still, it seems like old times.

For those who want to discover India beyond the Taj and Software, a train journey is probably the easiest way to get a head start.

For new visitors to India, here are my top three recommendations for your first train journey in India:

#1: Train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling

Darjeeling TrainPlan for this popular ride to Darjeeling on the narrow gauge Darjeeling Himalaya Railway, and a night or two at the Windamere Hotel. This train is now a UN World Heritage Site. Take the Darjeeling Mail from Calcutta (at Sealdah station) to New Jalpaiguri, leaving Calcutta Sealdah at about 10PM and arriving at about 8:30AM next morning.

The 'toy train' connects with the Darjeeling Mail in New Jalpaiguri, leaving at 9AM and arriving Darjeeling at 3:30PM. The leisurely day spent on the toy train through the Himalayan foothills is a day well spent.

The Windamere at Darjeeling was a boarding house for bachelor tea planters, and became a hotel in 1939. Meals are served by white-gloved, turbaned waiters and eaten by candlelight to the sound of Cole Porter tunes on the piano. Even if you can't afford it, make sure you come along for afternoon tea - probably the best cup of tea you will ever drink here.

#2: Train ride from Delhi to Shimla

You will leave Delhi on the Shatabdi Express for the train journey to Kalka. Here you change to the narrow-gauge 'Toy Train', which will take you on a wonderful journey up into the hills to the town of Shimla at over 7,000 feet. Shimla was chosen by the British as their retreat from the summer heat, and not only is the main street called the Mall, but many of the buildings in the town are very British in style. You can choose to stay at the magnificent Oberoi Cecil Hotel or Wildflower Hall both of which enjoy fabulous views of the Himalayas.

#3: A train ride on the Konkan Railways

This railroad passes through some of the most pretty coastal landscapes of Western India. You can either travel between Bombay and Goa or all the way to Kerala. Pick a train that travels during the daytime so you can enjoy the scenery outside.

Palace On Wheels IndiaAlternately, you can try one of the touristy luxury trains that combine city tours along with the train journeys between cities. The most popular one is the Palace on Wheels.

The Palace on Wheels is a moving hotel. It has 14 air-conditioned coaches and each sleeper has four compartments with en suite facilities and twin lower beds. Your personal attendant or Khidmatgar is available at all times. Dining is in one of the two opulent restaurant cars, the Maharaja and Maharini, serving Indian, international and Chinese cuisine. There is a comfortable lounge car and bar. The decor and furnishings reflect the colours and traditions of Rajasthan. Over 7 days, the train will take you from Delhi to Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Sawai Madhopur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Bharatpur and Arga before returning back to Delhi.

Palace on Wheels IndiaThe Deccan Odyssey is another alternatives to the Palace on Wheels. The Deccan Odyssey covers Maharashtra and a pinch of Goa - Mumbai, Ganpatipule, Ratnagiri, Sindhudurg, Goa, Pune, Aurangabad, Ajanta and Ellora.

Update, June 2008: Visitors to Bangalore please note, Karnataka has introduced it's own tourist train experience, The Golden Chariot.

Update, Jul 2008: And now, The Viceroy of India takes you on a luxury train travel across India from Bombay to Calcutta covering Jaipur, Agra, Delhi, Varanasi and Darjeeling. Check Cox & Kings for details.

Update, Jan 2009: This month will see the introduction of the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, an improved version of the Palace on Wheels. Over seven days, this train will set off from Delhi to cover Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Sawai Madhopur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Bharatpur and Agra. This journey will bring to you Rajasthan's forts, havelis, lakes and wildlife in a super-luxury train journey. The tariff varies between $900 - $2000 per person per night. Here's a brief comparison with the Palace on Wheels:

Check out these sites for more information:

The Indian Railways Fan Club
Luxury Trains
Rail Tourism India Site


backpakker said...

I still enjoy the toy train that goes to Ooty..there is something mystical abt train journeys andrailway platforms..time is so precious today that we would rather fly than go on trains

Mahesh Narkar said...

Hi Shantanu,
Your post brought back memories of my long distance train travel and
the small different things noticed
at various stations - my favourite oddity (and I don't know if it still exists) was non - veg chai sold at Egmore Station -- it was called non-veg since it had gur (jaggery) instead of the usual sugar. The other favourite was/is Wada Pav from Diwadkar at Karjat Station

My experiences with Indian Railway began when I started my engineering degree in Pune - I remember rushing to VT station to find a prime spot on the Deccan Express to Pune early mornings or catching the Deccan Queen at 5:15 PM. The prime spot (read seat) would be relinquished promptly once the train passed Karjat, to sit on the second class compartment steps looking down on the verdant valleys as the train climbed the Ghats or looking down at twinkling city lights (if on the DQ)

Later, when I started work, my train of choice was the Karnavati Express which left Dadar at 6:00ish in the morning. I made friends with all the TCs on that route and would be assured a seat in 2nd AC till Surat. The fun, of course was in the second class compartments - the usual expression of newly formed friendships was the shared dabbas containing dhoklas, theplas and basundi chai in a thermos.

I travelled to Delhi once on the Gitanjali in the sanitized, aseptic first class AC chair car...only to be impressed by the speed and not much else.

I haven't travelled by train much recently, except on the Konkan Railway. The route is definitely beautiful and I have spent many an hour stuck in the doorway, trigger happy with my camera.

Who can forget the baked beans on toast in the Deccan Queen or the cheese toast or the omlette sandwich - all eminently avoidable anywhere else but on Indian Railways, washed down with plastic cups of tea.

Thank you for unleashing a very pleasant flood of thoughts

Shantanu said...

@backpakker: Yes, of course. Ooty is another good train ride too.

@mahesh: Thanks for sharing. This almost qualifies a guest post. :-)

Sank said...

More reasons to vacation in India. I have to figure out how to get that done.

Zhu said...

Great post! I could almost travel with you... I wish.

I'd love to visit India, such a fascinating place! I can relate a bit to the train stories cause I took many trains in China and in South America - mix of chaos and fun, street merchants hoping in at every stop etc.

Love this post!

Sandeepa said...

Used to love travelling first class in those coops. Never liked AC coaches that much but I guess they have phased out the First Class Compartments, haven't they ?

My last First Class ride was in 97, travelling alone from Mumbai to Kolkata. Fortunately i had good co-passengers else a copp without the family can get nasty

indicaspecies said...

Your post brought back pleasant memories of my childhood days as well when I used to undertake such long train journeys. This year, I travelled on the Shatabdi Express twice and realized how much has changed in terms of service since the earlier days.

Shantanu said...

@zhu: I would like to try a train journey in China too. And the Trans-Siberian railroad, and the one that traverses Australia...

@sandeepa: You are right. The first class coupes have now mostly been replaced with ac compartments.

@indicaspecies: Shatabdis are mostly chair-cars and short-distance trains. But very efficient for business travellers.

Abhay said...

What a refreshing blog-Mahesh brought it lively-the Chai in plastic cup!
Shantanu -the train from Mysore would it be passing thro dense forests of Karwar..? That would have been Awsome..thick jungle,the scent of fallen leaves and your train piercing thro alone-all the 600+passengers ,you feel like part of one group!Though you might have fought with each other earlier while getting into..!! Now on Bhainyo or bahano!

Shantanu said...

@abhay: Thanks for your comments and sharing your experiences!

Vishal Pipraiya said...

Have you come across the tea sellers on the mumbai - kolkata stretch? I am not exactly sure about the station after which they start appearing but this is what you should look out for: Kharab chai le lo...kharab se kharab chai le lo, ghatiya chai le lo! Someone gave them a course in reverse psychology because everyone buys a cup to find out how bad it actually is!!

Shantanu said...

@vishal: Haha! I guess the vendors who invade train compartments do some really creative marketing to sell stuff in the few minutes they get when a train stops. :-)

beaverboosh said...

You stirred my memories of the Theroux classic, The Great Railway Bazar! One day...!

Shantanu said...

@beaverboosh: Oh yes, trains still take us into the romantic past, don't they?

Jessica Shankar said...

Hi Shantanu ! I found your posts very interesting. Last year I had taken a trip by Palace on Wheels. These days, as I figured out, getting berths have become genuinely diffcult. I secured one through a company called Indian Holiday. These guys provided good service though.

The journey is truly a lifetime experience. For ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis), it is really connecting with the roots.

But I think true India can be experienced in trips by local trains where you see the real people in their daily wears and tears. I am looking forward to one.

Shantanu said...

@jessica: Welcome and thanks for the comment! Yes, local trains are a very different experience and vary with the part of the country you are in.

Mansi Desai said...

I love the train pic!! washed with the rain its amazing!! some things need to be experienced to be appreciated! this post brought back some fond memories:)

Shantanu said...

@mansi: You are right. While the stories and the pics whet your appetite, the real fun is in the experience.

Promote said...

Great post about the train journey in India! Your account on trains and railway stations in India has brought back my childhood memories and my train trips with my family. Train travel is getting better and more enjoyable for upper classes. It is well said by you that Palaces on Wheels India for royal Rajasthan train tour is the ultimate train for the Luxury train Travel within India. It’s pleasure reading your travel tale!

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Rajpal said...

Came across your train blog today. Very well written. I agree with you totally on your thoughts & those childhood days travelling across the continent every summer/winter holidays. I was born & brought up in Calcutta but my ancestoral family is in Punjab so every school holidays - we used to make the pilgrimage to Punjab. The distance is about 1800 KMs and and I have very fond memories of those trips. The food, the cha, the smells, the noise, the junk food. Bought a smile to face just be remembering it. I should say 'thank you'. Love your blog BTW. I am a foodie and my life revolves around food.

Keep up the good work.

Shantanu said...

@rajpal: Welcome to my blog and thank you for the comments! :)

Santanu said...

Great Shantanu
Thanks very much
Santanu (without h)

Gorkhaland said...

Hi Santanu,

I had clicked the photo of Toy Train, Darjeeling. I remember that you had asked me for permission to paste in on your blog. However, I would appericiate if you could mention it on your blog.

Bishal Rai 'Kirath'

Shantanu said...

@Santanu: You are welcome!

@Bishal Rai: I have added the mention and also linked the picture to your Flickr account. Thanks for pointing out the oversight.

Anonymous said...

Amazing, you describe things as if its happening just in front of me..
Chaiwallah and all that ..
brought back wonderful memories of train trip from allahabad to kolkata..

Shantanu said...

@Jaya: Glad you enjoyed it! Thank you for leaving a comment here. I have done many trips between Allahabad and Kolkata during my college days; those were days when I travelled without reservations in the general compartment with other friends. :)

Windamere said...

The link to Windamere Hotel is not opening as the URL is wrong ... please make it to http://www.windamerehotel.com/ and also make the linking text "Widamere Hotel, Darjeeling, India" ... as a lot of people scan the page and can easily see Darjeeling, India and click on it (esp the foreigners) ... Thanks, great post, enjoyed reading it. Also will appreciate if I get an email, I need to talk to you about few things. Thanks.

Shantanu said...

@Windamere: Thank you for pointing this out. I have corrected the link. You can contact me at shantanughosh@hotmail.com

Silvia Martin said...

Very good post!
Seems, you really enjoyed your train journey.
After reading your post, I am also planning to travel by Rajdhani Express from jaipur to Delhi. I think it would be better than booking of flights to Delhi.

Shantanu said...

@Silvia: Thank you for the message!

Royal rajasthan on wheels said...

Royal rajasthan on wheels-the one of the best luxury train to travel Rajasthan savor the royalty and experience the opulence of kings on board this ultra luxury train in india.

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Without a shadow of a doubt, the best way to see India is not on a plane at 35,000 feet, but at ground level on the incredible Indian railway system. In fact, no visit to India is complete without experiencing the bustle of Indian railway stations and a safe & comfortable journey on an Indian express train with the tea seller's welcome cry of 'Chai, chai, garam chai' coming down the aisle. You can safely forget media images of overcrowded suburban trains with people sitting on the roof. On a long distance express in an AC Chair car or an AC1 or AC2 sleeper, all seats and berths are reserved and it’s a safe, civilised, cheap & comfortable way to get around India. Even long distances such as Bombay to Delhi, Delhi to Varanasi or Delhi to Udaipur can be covered more time-effectively than flying, using overnight AC Sleeper trains, city centre to city centre, saving a hotel bill into the bargain.

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