In this guest post, Monisha Rajesh – author of Around India in 80 Trains – gives us the lowdown on how to get the most out of a travel experience like no other.
In 2010 I spent four months travelling the length and breadth of the Indian Railways network in the hope of lifting the veil on a country that had become a stranger to me. Covering 40,000km and 80 train journeys, I rode express trains, steam trains, Mumbai’s infamous commuter trains, a hospital on wheels, and even the odd luxury train as I discovered why Indian Railways is considered the bloodstream that keeps the nation’s heart beating. Carrying more than 20 million passengers a day, there is nowhere like it on earth. I left India with its grit beneath my nails, rocking in my bones, and a few good lessons under my belt…
Get equipped: the Darjeeling Limited this is not
The throng and clamour of Indian trains can be overwhelming even to those who can normally curl up and doze under any circumstances. Expect loud phone calls at 2am made just beside your ear, Hindi films playing at all hours, and large aunties perched on the end of your berth while you sleep. Keep a pair of earplugs, an eye mask, toilet roll, and a small bottle of hand soap available. Even though bedding is provided, pack a cotton sleeper sheet for warm nights.
Be savvy with your seating
For overnight journeys, reserve an upper berth. During the day everyone sits side by side on the lower berths, so it’s tough luck if you want to nap after lunch. However, with an upper berth, you can haul yourself up and snooze or read at will, clambering down to socialise again as the mood takes you. Passengers are strict to follow bedtime rules and will retire at 9pm, often waking early to reclaim their seats below, meaning lie-ins are a no-go if you’re in the lower berth.
Don’t expect to turn up and travel on the day
Indian ticketing bureaucracy ranges from complicated to infuriating with tickets going on sale 120 days in advance, so make sure you plan any long-distance journeys in good time. The beloved Indrail pass was discontinued in 2017 but foreign tourists can still buy tickets at most of the main stations using the foreign tourist quota. Book online at Cleartrip.com and check for schedules and routes using IndRailInfo.com. Touts can spot the virgin-fresh sheen of a new tourist a mile away and will descend en masse, but never buy tickets from anyone or anywhere but at a train station or through an official website as all tickets are sold through one central computerised system.
Get clued up on the class system
Indian Railways is a microcosm of Indian society, so work out which of the eight train classes suits your needs and budget. You can confine yourself to a first-class cabin with bolster pillows and bone china with no one to chat to but the ceiling fan or travel down in general class wedged onto a wooden bench with 18 people sharing samosas, sticky fruit and stories. Shatabdis, Rajdhanis, Durontos, Mail, Express and Passenger trains have different services, speeds and prices, and most importantly some are newer and safer than others.
Tuck into the food
Train food is one of the best reasons to travel on Indian Railways. From the Deccan Queen’s traditional cutlet sandwiches and finger chips, to the Mandovi Express’s chicken lollipops, biryani and deep-fried okra, you will find hawkers wandering up the aisles dishing out the tastiest treats. Make sure to buy freshly cooked food that’s made on board or in front of you on the platform. Deep-fried foods like hot samosas and kachoris are a safe bet. And always carry bottled water.
Monisha Rajesh’s new book, Around the World in 80 Trains, is published by Bloomsbury. For more information, visit 80trains.com or follow @monisha_rajesh.