The Ultimate Railway Challenge ?

If you have arrived here and now want to know why I organised  this for a whole bunch of people I’d never even met, please visit Railway Children

If you think you already know what the world’s greatest railway journey is, watch us put something even more spectacular than our incredible Indian odyssey together, it’s all in  The Great Circular European Railway Challenge.

And if you want to see what people who have just spent 2 weeks solid on Indian Railways on a journey that I was told categorically couldn’t be done without serious consequences, take a look at this great photo from Emily, who stayed on the train and kept going for another 5 days.

The Survivors

Most of the people on that photo, and everyone who got off in Goa earlier in the day, had never been on an Indian long distance back to back train trip before. Indeed, all the people missing from that photo had never even been in India before this trip!. So what are you waiting for ?

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And Finally ….

I need to close this thing off somehow. Here’s a few bullets. If you want to know how to do this, read the last two posts in here, and the How To Do This page


If you hadn’t worked it out yet, let me explain it just once again. I invited loads of people I’d never even met, including a bunch who had next to no idea what to expect,  on what was supposed to be a nightmare of a journey, as a dare to myself and my friends in order to blag money for an appropriate charity.  It took hundreds of hours to organize, much of it spent running dozens of discussion threads and communicating with scores of people who ultimately dropped out.  I built and ran software to analyze the behaviour and reliability of  the services we were using, and managed the booking for everyone . When we had to extend the pass dates due to an error on the part of myself (and Shankar and Steve in fairness) I bore the expense out of the free ticket I was due. Several other people with experience and knowledge you can’t easily buy, notably Steve on IndiaMike, also made significant contributions.

The total cost for anyone doing this would have been about £300. That was an astonishing figure even by Indian standards. Each and every person left the train with a rail-road story to trump anyone. The sum total raised for railway children appears to be about £4,267.44, or over 300,000 rupees. Extra special thanks to Stoy, and Laird and Lady Glenmuchkin, as well as Julian Galvin, and Bella, Andrew and Jason for sticking up their own pages, and absolutely everyone who stumped up a few quid, or a heck of a lot more in many cases.

If you have made any income from this trip, and have yet to make a donation despite being provided with such an incredible journey at such a fantastic price,  please rectify the situation.


I  wanted to write a letter to The Railways, ranting about the abysmal situation regarding litter.  It really is appalling, seemingly across the whole country. The shocking state of Darjeeling literally had me in tears at one point. It was always a bit of a dump, but it was at least a biodegradable one. As for the railways,the entire length of any mainline route is strewn with discarded plastic. Any line with Rajdhani trains is even worse.

I appeal to anyone visiting India, and it’s trains, to think before you stick your spent plastic in the vestibule waste bin. All that will happen to it is that it will get tossed out of the door by the train cleaner guy. If you don’t have a problem with that then you can stare at the rubbish strewn track-side with a sense of personal achievement that you’ve helped make all that happen. Or if the spectacle pisses you off as much as it does me then you can try and use tiffin boxes and keep your rubbish to yourself till you get off so that at least its got half a chance of making it to some kind of land fill.

Route Updates

Udhampur will, eventually, cease to be the northernmost point on the network. Once they link it up with the rest of the Kashmir railway you’ll be able to go all the way Baramulla. That’s not likely to happen for quite a few years though.

A more imminent threat to the integrity of the route that we did is a place called Naliya, north of the gulf of Kutch that splits Gujarat in two. There is a military line up there which is about to be opened for public use. When open it will beat Dwarka by about 5 miles. Note that as of now, the real most westerly  station is Varvala, between Dwarka and Okha, but only by about 100 yards and it really is a tiny halt.  We had an idea of getting a boat from Jamnagar to Gandhidam and keeping it more convex by not having to backtrack all the way to Ahmedabad. A more feasible method might be to go all the way to Okha and arrange a boat from there. Working this out in advance though isn’t going to be easy.

What Next ?

I’ve got two ridiculous railway projects on the boil. One is GCERC, a European version of this, as defined by the limits of a Eurail pass. We’ll be going from London to Narvik, Istanbul, Siracusa, Lisbon and back in 2 weeks. We’ll hit Narvik for summer solstice in 2013, have a full day in Istanbul, catch the spectacular Bernina Express across the alps, and have some kind of stop off at more than 20 of Europe’s greatest cities and capitals . The ticket alone for that wont give you much change out of £1,000, and we’ll be grabbing any reasonable luxury on offer when we can. No, you can’t come.

A great circular European railway

The other is a long weekend traversing every bridge and tunnel in New York City between islands and other islands or the mainland.  This is as good an excuse as any to eat loads of over sized sandwiches while riding around the biggest get lost city of them all, and I have enough to make up a foursome which is about as many as I can be bothered with. If you too think the only way you’ll be able to handle New York is by gyrating your way round the tube, rail, ferry and bus system for 72 hours (we will be sleeping beds fyi)  , plus a few walkways and footpaths, and are big enough that you don’t need me to hold your hand, i.e you can cook up your own route to do this, you are welcome to turn up at Grand Central on the same, as yet to be decided, day, and we’ll make it a challenge of some kind. We’ve called it Project Konigsberg.

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You Too Can Be This Stupid

This Wasn’t Really A Challenge After All
No one really challenged the “challenge” tag before hand. The myth that was peddled to me by Indian Railway experts during the 18 months of prep (going on 5 years) was that back to back travel like this in India will wear you out in days. Our chances of success were rated at “< 50 %”  by many commentators, and dire warnings were aplenty about how quickly people would tire and abandon our duel with India’s Railways. Countless people, including all too many Indians, bottled out of joining in because it was just too silly a project to actually execute and not have serious regrets about afterwards.

Well, that’s all rubbish obviously. Nothing can save you if you get a serious attack of food poisoning, something that can happen anywhere in the tropics but perhaps nowhere more so than in India. If you can avoid that curse, wash regularly, and budget properly, then this really is quite a stylish and unforgettable way to travel. Everyone who followed the instructions that I posted on the costs page, specifically the one about bringing £150 to spend, which included all beer, taxis, food and hotels during the trip itself, strode off the train at Panvel thinking “is that it then ?,  I thought I’d be needing an ambulance”.

De-mob Happy. Lording it at Lord’s, Matheran

Of course we’ll have to see how the next people to attempt this get on before re-issuing the T-shirt as The Great Circular Indian Railway Jolly. The only previous entrant, a British clairvoyant, did it on his own, and in SL the whole way. It took him quite some time to recover from the feat. I estimate we spent half as much again as our test pilot (under £300 for everything instead of just over £200), did it 4 days quicker, covered much more ground and saw a whole lot more, and had a real ball doing it to boot. Perhaps the reason we did so well was the tedious planning, or may be it was sheer luck. But I think really it was because India’s railways run a damn site better than anyone seems to give them credit for. Just give yourself 6 hours between trains, none of ours was more than half an hour late!.  My stats, collected from the Indian Railways site over a period of 14 months, show that you’ll be unlucky to foul up if you stick to those guidelines (That’s perhaps a little simplistic. If you really do want to do this, and are big enough to understand that you probably need to talk to people about it first, go to IndiaMike and get some quality advice.  Some services can be appallingly late, there’s some science in working out which ones they are. You need to book the blinkin’ trains before you set off either way).

The Train is Your Sanctuary
Go AC2 the whole way, and bring someone you aren’t going to fall out with inside 2 days. As long as you are in a group of +1 so you aren’t worrying yourself daft the whole way round, it’s a totally do-able method. Wake up in a different place each day, do one or two activities, then get back to the station. You’ll end up wishing you had spent more time at certain places, but that’s all part of the idea. My principle aim was to get back home as quickly as possible, and as such the sight seeing was a side effect. Knowing what I now do, I’d have ditched Darjeeling, which was only in as a contingency 48 hours in case it all went mango shaped in Assam or before, and also because I wanted to go back and re-live a small moment of my youth. Instead I’d have focused more on arriving early in the morning, as we generally did, but leaving later in the afternoon. If we’d ignored Gorkhaland we could have included a whole day in Varanasi for instance, and also more time in Chennai, and still got back in the same time. I’ve got a timetable for that if you fancy doing the same 4 points plan with improvements.

Make Use Of Station Facilities
You need to take at least one buddy, particularly so that you can make extensive use of the upper class waiting rooms at the stations. These aren’t fancy airport style biz class waiting lounges or the like, more like a standard western class waiting room. But they have showers and you can find them at any major station and use them for free if you have a 2AC IndRail pass on you. All you need is a pal or two to look after the kit while you all rotate through the bathroom. The showers are usually free, though you may get stung for Rs20 (e.g Ahmedabad) but they really do work. As a result, we didn’t really need to rent hotel rooms for the purposes of washing after all. The main function of getting rooms was to give me some respite from the rest of the group. If you are in a more sensibly sized gang, say between 2 and 6, you don’t need to go for a hotel unless you are feeling a bit too buggered to spend all day doing an Indian city. And you can probably bag a retiring room at the station anyway. Obviously if you’ve been stupid enough to invite half the ruddy Internet to come round India with you then you aren’t all going to be able to get a railway retiring room. But you could always cheat and let everyone else check into somewhere then slip back to the station and bag a cheap room.

Amritsar Is A Must Do, As Is Ledo, But Udhampur Less So
We only stuck Amritsar in because of the way the timetable worked. If we hadn’t spent the day there then we’d have just had to waste a night in Jammu anyway. As it turned out it was a master stroke. You need to road it from Makhu in order to get both Wagah and the temple in. The border ceremony was an absolute hoot and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it. The Golden Temple is truly divine, easily the most serene experience of the whole trip. Hat’s off, or on I guess, to the Sikhs . There’s also no problem staying in the pilgrim hostels at the temple, so if you are looking to stick in a night off the train this is an ideal option.

Udhampur certainly needs more work. The pre-arranged hotel I took there was a disaster and on the general subject of hotels, as I’ve said above, it’s just not needed. I made my life a mess for the first half of the trip because of this. Even if you do end up with a silly sized group, not something I’d recommend, just make it plain that it’s every soul for themselves once the train stops. My advice for Udhampur would be to just jump in a cab and drive straight back down to Jammu and keep going.

Ledo though, which I was expecting to be virtually tribal country, was brilliant. If you are looking at the map and thinking “do we really need to go all the way out there, and then come straight back” my advice is a definite “yes you do”. What you must do is visit the colliery. They are delightful people there and will be ever so glad to see you. There is no specific tourist policy, and no one even gave the suggestion that we should make a contribution. But please don’t take the Micky if you do make a visit. Go and see the boss and give him at least a dollar per head.  The second thing is to perhaps to go to Singpho Eco lodge. Their meal is slightly pricey, but given the pace that you’d be doing the whole trip if you attempt anything like this, it’s more than worth it. You’ll then need to get a taxi back up to Tinsukia. What we should have done is get a taxi to do the whole of the days road traveling, rather than over load rickshaws. If I hadn’t been trying to accommodate a range of budgets then that’s what we’d have done.

Dont Start From Mumbai, Or If You Do Then Use Matheran
I’m still waiting to be re-united with footage from Matheran, but this litter free retreat is a real find. It will cost you barely any more to get a cab straight to this hill station just 60 km from the airport than it will to downtown Mumbai, and a fraction of what it costs to sleep in Colaba instead. It also has a world class train ride up and down, which is really the only way to do it. If you are landing in India for the first time you could do much worse than make a beeline for this place while you find your bearings. Your flight times might mean you’ll have to cab it 3/4 of the way up instead of getting the train the whole way. Cars are not allowed to the top, you have to get a pony the last bit, or walk.
You still need to do Mumbai if you start from elsewhere, otherwise you’ll be cheating. But make sure you just do it in a day if you are on any kind of budget.

One Rajdhani is Probably Enough
Everyone thought that the Rajdhani we got out of New Delhi was the best thing that had ever happened to them. But the novelty wears off pretty quickly. The reasons for not doing perhaps anymore than 1 Rajdhani are

1. They don’t stop much, and when they do it’s for seconds and so you can’t go more than a few feet from the train. The stops that you get on a standard express are essential parts of the whole experience.
2. The meals are the same, both lunch and dinner. As a result you are missing out on an important aspect of the trip. The platform food available in most major stations is excellent. I can personally recommend Comesum. Just go for the flashest outlet you can see. If you want to avoid littering the country you’ve come to see (I’ve got a mega rant coming about the whole litter subject) then get yourself a tiffin and ask them to fill it up for you.
3. Your food packaging, and there’s tons of it, just gets thrown out of the train, see above point and the diatribe I am about to unleash about the behaviour of Indian Railways with respect to litter.
4. You get stung for tips, and the staff can be outrageously rude if you don’t give them +Rs100. So you aren’t making on the deal anyway (meals are free on Rajdhanis FYI). I doubt natives give more than Rs 20 a head, but as a tourist you could get some agro if it’s your first time in India. One of our India virgins had her Rs 50 thrown back in her face.
5. Free tea doesn’t really make up for the losses I’ve just listed. Part of the whole gig is the guy calling “chai chai chai chai”, “cold drink cold drink cold drink” etc etc. if I were doing this again I’d do no more than 1 Raj.

You can though still open the doors while in transit, contrary to one claim. They are cleaner than a standard 2AC express, and some of them are brand new and quite flashy.  If you are feeling like you’ve just had enough Hindustan for one lifetime, a feeling we all get, usually at least once a trip, then it’s an option for sure. But don’t over do it.

Some Advice If You Are  Doing This To Raise Money
If you are doing anything like this, don’t be shy, tell the participants what you are expecting. Be explicit. Professional charity expedition outfits stipulate a figure. There’s a reason for that. Obviously that’s going to put a bit more pressure on yourself as people will naturally expect you to be providing a service.

I needed an excuse to allow me to do this. I’ve never denied that. So my plan was, “invite anyone and everyone you can find to do this, including budget backpacking India first timers, and hope everyone plays fair and contributes to my once in a life-time charity sponge”. Organising this was not only a thoroughly worthwhile experience for me, but was also great for Railway Children on a number of levels. The group were  charming, knowledgeable, and very appreciative on a daily basis for how much work had gone into making this happen, before and during the trip, and by a whole group of people. and all with barely a hitch.

If that hasn’t sunk in yet, the link to the donations page is still waiting patiently at the top of the margin ….

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Around India in 80 Seconds

Here’s another angle to the Aggregated Gilbert. It’s actually 140 seconds in this one, but around India in 2 and a half a minutes doesn’t work as good.

This is the first of a series of these, I’m sure. In fact I know.

And while I am on, extra special thanks to Stoycho’s fiends Ivan and Mila and also David Young. I’ve got some accounting to do now for the Thanks page but the fund raising is coming along nicely.

Have  a groovy day if you missed Red Nose Day – GCIRC Virgin Money Giving page

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Suhana Safar: GCIRC Photos

Here are links to Kothanda’s photo blog of the trip. As a confirmed member of the Gentleman’s Club (which actually included 2 women), KS finished the trip just as clean as he started, and like the rest of the well washed members of the trip could have carried on much further. He was also delightful company and as the only native to cover the whole 360 degrees was a great help at almost every step.
Thanks for everything.

Suhana Safar: GCIRC Page

Flickr Collection of all the photos

Mumbai Dwarka




Margherita Eco-Lodge






Trivandrum – Panvel

Truly Golden Temple

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The Aggregated Gilbert

I did ask, with feeling, that our two American blogsters inform me, via the facebook group page, of their postings so I could aggregate them. I suppose I should have known better than to expect compliance. Anyway, I do get a thank you in Drew’s blog, and a generous “something I will remember for the rest of the life” which is actually worth far more than either.
Here’s some of Drew’s account. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to tell Floyd what the difference is between a Mogul and a Mongol. OK they are of the same root, but I cant believe it was deliberate.

GCIRC Day 3 – Riding the rails

I mistakenly thought that our first train, a 19 hour ride up to Dwarka, was our longest trip in the circuit. I was wrong though, there are at least two longer rides, and today I was on one of them – a 24 hour slog from Ahmedabad Jn. to Makhu. (5 actually)

GCIRC Day 4 – The one where Drew craps his brains out
Drew is, um, unavailable for today’s post, so he’s left it to his wife (Christine) to finish his update for him….

GCIRC Day 4 pt 2 – Delhi Belly: Just another statistic, man.
The lesson here, kids, is to come prepared better than I was. I was cocky. I was positive I wouldn’t need any sort of drugs to help me in a pinch, and as a result, I was at the mercy of my co-riders willingness to dip into their own resources to help me….

GCIRC Day 5 – Udhampur: computing, party crashing, getting thrown off a train, etc
If it wasnt for John, at the very least you would have lost Assam, and spent the other side of 50 dollars catching up. I reckon that makes him your hero

GCIRC Day 6 – New Delhi: not so scary after all
I’ve also bought another package of baby wipes. The first batch suited me well, so I will continue with those…..

GCIRC Day 7 – I love this train
Writing this on the New Delhi – Dibrugarh Rajdhani, or The Rajdhani Express- my favorite train of the trip so far……

GCIRC Day 8: I hate Assam. I love Assam.
I promise to read at least some of Mark’s instructions about the trip, and in particular stuff about Internet connectivity, if I am ever lucky enough to be invited on another of these events

GCIRC Days 9-11: Darjeeling – Welcome to Gorkhaland
We have reached the half way point of our little jaunt around India, and with two days in Darjeeling, everyone is meant to rest up and recharge their batteries. Whether or not that worked out as planned, you would have to ask the others, but from my point of view, everyone seems to have lost a bit of that early pep that we had at the beginning of this trip…..

GCIRC Day 12: Kolkata, and the art of passive travel
If you are going to be the passive traveler, you do not get to complain about where you travel…….

GCIRC Day 14: Rameswaram, elephants in Hindu temples and getting drunk

Who ate all the samosas?

GCIRC Day 16: The Finale.
I would like to thank Mark for organizing this trip, something that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Most of Drew’s posts can be found in his The Great Circular Indian Railway Challenge archive here

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GlobeTrooper:Touchdown – The Final Days

We travelled over 12,000 kilometers; that’s 3,000 more than the Trans-Siberian. On 15 different trains; from general class, all the way to 2AC. To 12 towns and cities; the Easternmost, Northernmost, Westernmost and Southernmost railway stations of India. With 20 undeniably crazy people; from Australia, US, UK, Singapore, Bulgaria and India. All in 15 days; with only two nights spent on stationary ground.

We did it! And it really was an epic adventure that only cost a couple of hundred dollars.

The Great Circular Indian Railway Challenge was never meant to be a relaxing tour. People often asked why we were in such a rush, why we didn’t take more time, and why we planned to spend so much time on trains.

The simple answer is that it was a challenge. But more than that, it was a chance to see some of the most remote parts of India through the lens of train travel in a timeframe that allowed an eclectic group to skip their homely commitments to do it together.

Steven, GCIRC Chief Technical Officer

read Todd’s full post here


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Der Führer: Day 14 – Kaniyakumari, Kovalam and Coffee

Here is the missing Day 14 which failed to make it during my attempts to upload while on the Konkan line up the west coast. There’s a tunnel on that line every few miles and that makes staying on-line next to impossible.
I am still trying to reassemble my head after all this. The best day turned out to be the last one in Matheran, Not sure if that’s because I’d finally managed to shake everyone off, or because it’s a world class train ride, or what, but more on that later. Here’s the last full day of mental rushing about before we got on that last train up the coast back to Mumbai.


4:45 Am start on the last day, 45 extra sacred running delay minutes in the sanctuary of the train before the final day. The train obviously gets in at that time in order that pilgrims can get to the cape proper in time for the sun rise. The day break was nothing spectacular alas due to distant cloud, but there were so many Indians there that it was an event non the less.

Rickshaws then for the 20km or so up to Nagercoil Junction, traveling in the comparative luxury of 2 and 3 to a rickshaw, with myself in my customary shotgun position next to the driver, which at least might allow me to leap from the vehicle should head on collision occur.

I am still fathoming how you can get 6 adults with luggage, 3 Australians, 2 Americans and a substantial Indian, plus driver, in a standard 2 seater rickshaw. Please don’t try this at home. I’ve already discussed the casualty rate on Indian roads.

Then a local passenger train up to Trivandrum, which was entertaining. We missed the chance though to cut out Trvandrum by getting off at  Balaramapuram, which looked an interesting place. Then into a nice ambassador taxi to the beach, with the usual 6 in a rickshaw brigade following behind and failing to take any hints.

Kovalam was at first sight totally unrecognizable, but it turned out that the original little cottages are still there under the lighthouse. I couldnt remember exactly which one I stayed in, but you can, with a little effort, imagine what the place looked like 29 years ago if you just blot out absolutely everything else bar the lighthouse. It was quite a nostalgic moment for both John and I. It’s now a rather crowded beach resort. God only knows what it must be like at Christmas these days.

The highlight of the day though, by a country mile, was the state run coffee house outside the station. It’s worth coming to Trivandrum just to eat in that incredible building. It’s a spiraled construction made of brick. The building has it’s own fantastic termite mound style natural AC system by by way of the triangular “window” holes allowing breeze to run through and I guess circulate up the spiral building. The drinks are great, we really should have arranged to spend more time here though.

The Coffee House at Trivandrum Station, by Kothanda

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Touch Down

Good morning from idillyc litter free Matheran. I’ll be doing an extensive rant about litter once I’ve got my head back together.
Landed at Panvel round about on time, and arrived in this delightful place 3 hours later. Too buggered to do anythingn else.
Everyone who made it round (and we only had one retirement, though a sad loss to the gang) had an amazing time. The age range was from about 20 to 60 years, and with a roughly corresponding budget range.
So basically it ended up like some land based cruise tour, for about £300 all in for 15 days. Not a challenge at all. So in your faces those so called hardcore railfans who said “cant be done, not in comfort anyway”. 16 people, most of them new to India let alone indian railways, did it pretty easily. You could do it better still by starting with what we’ve worked out and improving the few bits that didnt work as good.

Many thanks to Steven in particular for helping out especially with many of the imaginative ideas. It’s a shame we never got to do Dhemaji, but then just one night in Darjeeling would have caused a mutiny I feel sure.
I lost my temper quite a few times, so nothing new there. Apologies those who got the thick end.
If my wife and family, who I now miss very much, ever let me do anything like this again, it will be back to the usual 4 blokes.


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Der Führer: Day 15 – Last Train to Panvel

There are rajdhanis and rajdhanis it seems. This one is still better than standard express 2AC, but not a patch on the raj’ train from Delhi to Dibrugarh.
Overnight and this morning we’ve had 5 people ditch, Andrew in Ernakalum and then Todd & Lauren and Drew & Troy in Goa. I’ve lost count as we are all dotted up and down the 4 2AC coaches we have, but I think we are still 10 strong for the final 8 hours to Panvel. But for one the journey doesn’t stop there. Emily is so taken by her life on an Indian train that she is now going to stay on the train up to Delhi, then jump straight onto another train, rajdhani of course, down to Bubaneswar on the opposite side of the country (we went through there about 4 days ago). Then, before her ticket finally runs out, pop down to Bangalore. So well over 15,000 km in total I’d imagine.

Trying to get online up the Konkan is actually a nightmare, it takes about five minutes to get online, the a tunnel comes and you have to start again. John, Jason and I will be the only ones to make it up the hill at night at Matheran.

Expect a micro post in a few hours declaring the completion of the main rail route at Panvel, but after that I need to take a break from this for a few days and work out what we ended up with and what state my head is in.

And for the record, Der Führer means, literally, The Guide.


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Der Führer: Day 13 – Rameswaram

I’m three days behind now, the last 60 hours have been a blur, it’s been hard enough hanging onto the ride, let alone posting. So here’s a blog blitz coming.

The berth allocations on the Boat Train to Rameswaram were screwed up. Nothing new there, but we were generally all in 3AC, and the priority persons, specifically those who claim membership of the supreme caste of North-West England, didnt get the few 2AC’s on offer. We’ve somehow managed to get 16 people right round the edge of the network in 2 weeks, I dont think that’s going to be happening again in a hurry. Anyone who did this trip without fully briefing themselves might care to reflect on the success of the proect when they get off the train in a few hours, and take the 30 seconds out of their busy schedules it will take to read the Causes page on the menu at the top (also try About and Costs).

After crossing the impressive Pamban Bridge to the island we arrived at Rameswaram and our first mistake was accepting John’s “lets get the horse rickshaw” suggestion. The miniature wild west wagon carts they had would perhaps have been enough for either Jason or myself, but certainly not the pair of us, to the amusement of the entire town as the guy took us on a tour of just about every street in the small but important temple destination.
Ate at Ganesh’s Mess, which was great on both occasions. Drank warm beers at the “under-construction” Hotel Tamil Nadu.
Boarded the train to the cape at 8pm. 3AC was the best on offer, and it was due in at the appalling hour of 4:00 AM. Tomorrow is going to be a killer.

Here’s the lovely shot of the temple at Rameswaram, taken by Andrew
Rameswaram Temple

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GlobeTrooper: GCIRC – Days 9,10 & 11

Wow! Darjeeling is absolutely nothing like what I expected. The 3-hour taxi ride from New Jalpaiguri station is a nail-biting white-knuckle ride along a series of switchback to 2,050m above sea level. And although Darjeeling’s hotels have aristocratic English names, like the Windamere, this high-altitude town is much more Chinese and Nepalese than English, or even Indian.

Sitting back in a hotel room, replete with room service, we made the most of our couple of off-train days in relative luxury. It also gave me time to articulate my thoughts on travelling with big DSLR cameras.

This is the first night we’re spending off a train since the start of the GCIRC. And once we leave the Darjeeling, we’ll spend every night aboard trains until the end. That means we’re all making the most of our time on terra firma and counteracting the brisk air with hot cups of Darjeeling tea.
read Todd’s full post here

Photo by Todd Sulivan

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Der Führer: Day 12 – The Coromandal Express

Being on the Net for most of this has it’s ups and downs. An up was being able to skype, well sort of, with my Dad yesterday.. A down was discovering that my football team just lost.
We’ve had connection for at least 50% of the journey so far and with luck now we’ll have it almost continuously as we drive round the beautiful South. I would though strongly recommend to anyone wanting to repeatedly upload multi-megabyte size photos to equip themselves with some kind of resilient file transfer mechainism, i.e something which will continue the upload from where it left off if the line went down halfway through. Dropbox is one solution worth looking at. We’ve a couple of guys on this train who spent the first week going potty when they realised you cant easily upload 6meg files with an intermttent connection using HTTP (i.e. a web based upload facility). Talk to your local nerd for an explanation about that.

We have just been treated to a cameo appearance from VSP, who is a native railfan of great esteem. The guy has memorised the entire running schedule of major trains. That’s a bit like knowing every bus route in England.

We have a shower on this carriage. By that I mean we’ve got a shower hose in the loo, but it beats filling up a beaker of water as that takes ages to get the shampoo out. It’s starting to get proper hot now as we head into Tamil Nadu, just a few minutes on the platform can produce quite a sweat if you are dashing about looking for something yummy to eat. I ended up with a box of burfi.

We’re getting to the stage in the journey where I am now getting all retrospective and wondering why the heck I did all this. I dont usually get the full impact of any Indian visit till about an hour into the Arabian Sea on the flight home, but this one has obviously been different in so many ways. As an excuse for doing all this I have tried to raise money, and at least gain some exposure for what seemed like a worth while charity which works in an ideally appropriate area. We had Times of India sending a journalist to the station, off the back of telephone interviewing half of us the few weeks before. After I then organise a brass band to see us off, the ToI turn up with a photographer who hadn’t even got a flash on his camera, something the two professional photographers in the group thought was “odd”. We had to hurriedly get the group photo made up of us all stuffed into a 4×4 bay several days later on the Rajdhani train to Assam and email it to them. It then turns up in something called the Times of India Crest edition, whatever the heck that is, and they failed even then to stick a link in the article to the blog. Net result ?, absolutely no exposure for railway children who couldn’t be arsed to even send a rep to Mumbai Central station for a handshake anyway,
On the positive side, while we have a few days left to go, we’ve demonstrated that this kind of trip, done in 15 days flat, is not only doable, but doable in style. We’ve had just one casualty, and they were pre-poisoned by a banana lassi in Delhi before joining us. This is not, or least doesn’t have to be, some epic endurance test where you end up spending most of the time genuinely sick. Everyone has had an amazing time and almost the only ailments have been flu and cold related. It’s also been claimed that live blogging like this has never been done before. Well I doubt that, but either way, if you want to go round India and keep on the Net for most of the time, it can be sorted inside 30 minutes and £25 plus a passport photo at any of the major networks. If you book yourself, with an IndRail pass, on AC2 the whole way round, and on Rajdhanis wherever possible, and make sure you keep washing and taking advantage of good food outlets through a little research, this is a viable itinerary. Though I’d keep the group down to under 6 if you want to remain sane before and during the trip. Indeed a smaller group would have more chance of at least bluffing their way through in a lower class if things went pear shaped, and you’re not going to have the same trouble as I’ve had trying to please rich and poor alike.

We are now just a few hours out of Chennai, where we lose Stoycho who has to revert to jet setting mode. Most people are zonked out, which is good as Madras is our tightest swap over. We should have 3 hours between trains, but it all whizzes by so quickly.
No photo just now, but a fat and bald people photo by special request from old UCLians will be forth coming.

Biggest Dosa
Biggest Dosa In Town

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Der Führer: Day 11 – Oh! Calcutta

Landed at Sealdah just 15 minutes late. Those of us in the “Gentlesman’s Club” (i.e. the old farts) made a beeline for the ferry across the Hoogli and to Howrah station, from where we had to catch the Coromandal Express at 2pm. To my utter astonishment, everyone else, including two of the ladies who had been suffering from flu with quite acute fevers, all set off into the mayhem that is Calcutta, carrying their rucksacks, on a sight seeing tour.
The ferry was eerily pleasant. It’s empty, certainly at 8 in the morning. The view of the magnificent bridge cant be bettered. I am writing this from the dingy room at the Hotel Howrah that we’ve hired for a few hours for washing. We’ve just eaten at the splendiferous Food Plaza in Howrah station, which we can all heartily recommend.After the 200 yard journey to and from there through the maelstrom outside and inside Howrah station, in baking heat, I am wondering how the unwashed members of the sight seeing party are coping.
Here’s a view of the bridge from our dingy hotel (The Hotel Howrah looks a lot better outside than in), which along with what now seems like a bizarre experience on an empty ferry was the sum total of our sight seeing exploits for the day.
Howrah Bridge
The Howrah Bridge by The Captain

And we are now on the train, there are seconds to go and the sight see-ers are nowhwre to be seen…… And here they come, pretty flustered. Tip: it’s always a good idea to get to the platform a good half an hour in advance in a country which treats chaos as equilibrium.

Next stop Chennai and the biggest paper dosa I can find.


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Der Führer: Day 10 – The Road Down from Darjeeling

The day started with a spectacular view of the entire Kanchenjunga massive as the clouds had obligingly cleared for us that morning, and Shangri-la Regency enables you to sit with your muesli and coffee and just soak it all up.
We took the toy train up to Ghum, which you have to pay a whopping Rs240 for even if you are just going the one way. But it was worth every penny of the £3.50 as we were able to reach the highest point on Indian Railways by train, indeed on one of the world’s most famous steam trains. The rest of the journey down has to be done by road at the moment anyway as they havent fixed the road up yet, It was a lot easier than the drive up, even at the back of the van.
On impact at New Jalpaiguri we were again subjected to quite a gang of beggars, mostly children, and I’m hoping the charitable nature of the expedition was not lost on some of the others in the group, though I’m losing confidence daily on that front.
A quick shower in the upper class waiting room, and there then followed an uncomfortable overnighter on the Darjeeling Mail to Sealdah station in Calcutta. Few of us managed a decent night’s kip as we were all booked into the side berths, the lower of which is virtual torture.
DHR by The Captain

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Der Führer: Day 9 – Darjeeling Rest Day

Those of us booked into the Shangri-La Regency arrived to find a small but genuinely boutique hotel, with beautiful rooms, and a spectacular top floor bar and breakfast area. But the really outstanding thing about this place are the staff. They really were delightful from start to finish, and at Rs2,000 a room it’s frankly a snip. Those of the group not as fortunate as ourselves generally left with severe misgivings. Indeed, we watched the sensational India v England tied match at the other Shangri-La, and I’m afraid the staff there are an entirely different proposition, You need the Regency if you want Windamere service but at a fifth of the price.
We spent the day wandering about the back streets of lower Darjeeling with the aid of Rumba who is the proprietor of Hot and Stimulating Cafe, which is a tiny place you can find on the way to the Himalayan Mountaineering Club. They serve delicious momos, which are a Tibetan, vegetarian form of Chinese dumplings.
The evening was spent with a few beers watching the cricket, and a fun time was had by all in the bar with honours even.
Here’s another of Andy’s Kanchenjunga pics to be going on with

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Der Führer: Day 8 – The Ride To Darjeeling

Got up at the disgusting hour of 5am in order to be moved down the train from the rather cramped environment of 3AC to the luxurious expanses of 2AC. A few hours later we left Assam and the internet flickered back into life in time to make the previous two posts and notify next of kin of our existence. Pulled into New Jalpaiguri at noon. Which was earlier than someone who had been staring at the itinerary for 12 months should perhaps have expected.
We then went via the hotel Cinderella in Siliguri for a swifty with Dave Watson of the DHRS gang, before the ride up the hill. Captain Shakti found himself in the back of the suspension-less 4×4 we could only find and was very low on batteries when we finally reached the heavenly Shanri-La Regency. More gushing praise for those lovely people later (note, get your wheels sorted at NJP station even if you are stopping off in Siliguri, and never ask a hotel to sort it for you, Cindy quoted 3,800!!!, asking price is 1,500).
You’ll be getting a blog blitz later on, stay tooned.

Gentlemen’s Club, By our mate Dave Watson

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GlobeTrooper: GCIRC – Day 5

PSSSHHHHHHH!!!! Air screams from the train’s undercarriage as ‘someone’ (names redacted to protect the not-so-innocent) pulls the emergency brake lever. People all over the platform run to the source of the sound; they shout foreign words like gunfire while the conductor chases after them with an authoritative growl.

The GCIRC team is now split: half on the platform, half in the train. Chaos reigns as an argumentative battle ensues. Big military men with big military guns have now joined the melee, and it looks like it’s getting really serious now.
read Todd’s full post here

Photo by Todd Sulivan

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Der Führer: Day 8 – Assam

Arrived at 5am in Dibrugarh. It felt like the end of the line already but we had one more train to do to get to Ledo, easternmost point of railways in India. Well, almost. About 10 km further on from Ledo is the colliery at Tipong with it’s own narrow gauge railway.

As we waited the 3 hours for the local train to take us there, a very sorry looking chap with cuts all over him came and lay down in a space nearby. It was 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. Andrew however, one of my other friends from late childhood, and who just happens to be a health care professional dealing with learning disabilities, immediately switched into pro-mode and whipped out the first aid kit and began to tend him. Some of the girls offered their assistance too. It was near to train time so, partly through my shepherding instinct to get everyone on the train, partly to reduce the crowd who were amassing to witness Andrew perform this novel activity of tending for the less fortunate, and largely cos I was developing a lump in my throat through the pride of claiming such a great guy as perhaps my closest mate for 30 years and very long suffering travel buddy, I shifted off. Andy got the station master to ring up for a doctor, and they all had to run to catch the train.

Following the usual indecision from half the gang, we ended up with 14 people, including all luggage, in 3 rickshaws. We then set off on a sort of rickshaw grand-prix to the colliery. It was a close run race but Team Stretch reached the chequered flag first. To my relief and delight, the uniform on the gate just took the drivers name and waved us into the colliery complex.

It’s a fascinating place with ever so friendly staff. They have temples mounted above the entrances to all the shafts into the mine. They even pulled out David the steam engine, which alas is only fired up these days for tour groups who arrange it in advance and would naturally want to spend a day or two there. The staff didn’t even ask for any money, but I stuck a generous contribution with the supervisor. If you are in Ledo, which can surely be only on a form of this trip, I strongly recommend you stump up the Rs 500 for a rickshaw and visit the happy miners of Tipong.

Next stop, and following yet further dithering, and a further 15km of backside battering aboard the rickshaws, we arrived at Singpho Eco Lodge, for a 3 hour rest and recuperation session, and an appointment with beer.

Then back to New Tinsukia Junction for the friendly experience of 3 tier AC, More news as we get it.

David at Tipong – By Andrew Galvin

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Der Führer: Day 7 On-board the Dibrugarh Rajhdani

And we’re back from pre-paid mobile internet free Assam. So here cometh a blog blitz.

Currently parked at a place called Betgara. Internet coverage has been patchy, then it went off completely. Kothander and another nice Indian bloke had to call up Vodafone for me to get things working again. Everyone seems to now be acclimatised to perpetual railway motion, and are cock-a-hoop with the airline waiter service being provided.
Not a massive amount to say, we’re on a 40 hour train trip, One of the numerous advantages of hanging out on Rajdhanis is that while the windows are hardly spotless, not if you are on the opposite side of the platform and out of reach of the window-cleaning wallahs, they at least dont have that blinkin’ tinted window film stuff that they stick on the ordinary AC2 carriages. So we’ve a lovely view of the paddy fields of northern West-Bengal floating by..
I’m going to attempt my first train-loo shower a little later.
We are now entering Assam so I’m not expecting to be able to post this till Saturday, we’ll see.

The Gang
Photo By Troy Floyd

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