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”.
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 trainenquiry.com 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 ….