Here’s some advice about organizing some kind of epic rail odyssey around India.
1. It’s not hard to do
Lets just get this straight. Executing this was not difficult, or at least nowhere near as hard as we thought it would be. Planning it wasn’t trivial, but probably 90% of the effort went into communicating with potential entrants. When we strode off the train at Panvel after 2 weeks and a day of seemingly constant railroading, we had 4 nearly-50s blokes, 2 over-60s blokes, and 3 under-30 ladies. No one out of that group had a grueling time at any stage apart from one of the gals who was ill for a day with flu. One of the ladies actually carried on to the end of her 21 day pass as she was enjoying it so much. This is not just doable, it’s enjoyable.
If you have planned properly. and can get from the airport to the train station without suffering a panic attack, then you will make it the whole way round unless you get some serious food poisoning. That’s not to say you wont have an incredible time, especially if this is either your first time in India and/or your first time on a train trip that takes more than a few days. But you need to plan carefully, and budget properly, if you intend a whistle stop tour of this nature.
2. How to plan a route
If you want to cook up your own route, and you like keeping your travel book and map library well stocked, then buy this wonderful atlas The Great Indian Railway Atlas http://samit.org/irmap/ .
For timetabling you can use a number of trip planners, such as these :- 90di.com and BharatByRail . Erail.in is also a handy device, but it wont work out routes for you involving more than one train, and certainly not something as complex as going to every corner of India. Once you’ve chosen a service I recommend that you watch it in trainequiry.com for a few days. If you are really geeky I can send you a program that will do that for you so you can come back in a few weeks and see if your train has behaved badly.
Once you’ve come up with a plan, get it reviewed. You are not the first person from Christendom to have traveled on Indian trains. There’s a bunch of things I’d do differently which I’ve listed in my last two posts on the blog.
3. When should I go, or not go
December, January and February are often plagued with fog in the north. If you choose to go during winter then you should allow for some serious delays of 6 hours or more on even premium trains.
Indian holiday periods are much the same as in the UK. The trains get booked up quicker for those weeks, and if you end up needing a train at no notice you will find it far more difficult.
The monsoon can also cause serious problems, especially in Assam and also along the Konkan railway on the west coast. It’s also atrociously wet, and hot. I can’t think of a more inappropriate time to try and do this.
4. Budget properly
There is a fascination to the point of competitiveness that many travelers have for doing India on not just a shoestring budget, but on virtually no money at all. If you do that in any country you’ll find yourself feeling rough before long. If you do that in India while trying to execute something like this, then you’ll rapidly find that it’s not even cost effective, and is potentially lethal.
If you want to have the best chance of being fighting fit when the train finishes it’s journey, and be able to investigate station stops along the way without losing your seat, book yourself into ACII . A budget of £10/Rs 700 a day, on top of your pass, and as long as you are in a group of at least 2, should be more than sufficient to cover the extra taxis you’ll need to keep going when the railway timetable doesn’t quite work out for you, and for the odd decent hotel, and as much food as you could possibly eat.
5. IndRail pass
Trying to get your tickets worked out iteratively while you travel is just asking for a stressful experience. If time is of any concern of yours, and if you are trying to do something like this I can assure it will be, you simply have to get a rail pass. The truth is, remarkably few people ever actually get a pass and you are likely to be told “I’ve been to India loads of times and I never buy a pass and I always get a ticket”. But if you ask more questions you are likely to find out that the same person rarely if ever travels in AC II, and always has to wait several days for their ticket if it’s an overnight journey anyway.
You can get your pass before you leave, and get your trains nailed, from Shankar, who lives here http://www.indiarail.co.uk/. A 21 day pass costs £136, a 15 day £126 (see here). My group all paid just £126 for theirs, as I made up the shortfall from the free ticket I was due having got more than 16 people to do this.
In theory, once you’ve submitted your itinerary to “The Railways” via Shankar (or directly if you are doing this in India) then if you want to change the route later you’ll get stung for a cancellation fee of about 6 bucks per train I think. In practice, as they are such a novelty to most conductors and booking staff, you are unlikely to get charged even that. Either way, you can change your plans, or just make them up on the hoof, using an IndRail pass. If you’ve got a plan, but have an unresolved variable in it, then just take a best guess. Getting a berth on a train at next to no notice when you’re brandishing an IndRail is way easier than doing it without, so even if you opt to do no planning at all and just work it out at point blank range, you will save a lot of valuable time if you’ve got a pass. If there’s space on any train you will just be able to sit down on it.
If you intend to do anything like this without an IndRail, because you think you can do it for a few quid less, then you will end up spending an inordinate amount of time in railway booking offices. If that’s a part of India you really want to study in depth then I recommend you stop reading now and just head for the airport.
6. What to do when the train stops
One thing we were unable to do, as a result of the size of the group, was to make camp in the station “retiring rooms”. These exist in most major stations. You can work out if there are any at your station beforehand, but alas you can’t always book them in advance. So if they are full you are going to have to go for a plan B if you think you’d like a hotel room for a few hours. Some places, such as Delhi, have outsourced the retiring rooms to a hotel company, and they are as a result more expensive, but I am told of greatly improved quality and they can be booked in advance. Either way, if you would like to take a room for a few hours so you can drop your bags and chill out, it’s a no brainer to take one at the station if they are available.
Expect the effort required just to get out of the station to be directly proportional to the size of any Indian city. The bigger the city the more hassle it is to go sightseeing, but the better the facilities you’ll find in and around the station. So plan accordingly, do more activities in small places and treat big city stations as activities in their own right.
The food quality at major railway stations in India these days is much better than it used to be. The food that you’ll get offered when actually on the train isn’t as good, but again it’s much better than it was 25 years ago. Spend an extra few rupees and treat yourself to some of the food at places like Comesum, or the food plaza at Howrah, the chaat there was superb, and reduce your chances of contracting food poisoning.
7. How to use the Internet
Everyone wants to blog their adventure on the hoof these days. Doing this on an Indian train is feasible, but problematic.
You do not need to have a sponsor in India to get a USB stick and pre-paid SIM card. You do need a passport photo, about £15, and about half an hour of your time. (travel tip: always keep a few passport sized photos handy).
You are going to find uploading large professional standard images and videos while on an Indian train painful to next to impossible if you don’t use a persistent file transfer system. By that I mean something that can pick up where you left off the last time the connection went down, which it will do every 5 minutes. Go and install something like Dropbox, so you can copy stuff to HQ and they can then do the posting for you.
And it’s not going to work in the far north in Jammu, or the far east in Assam. For that you will need a post paid account and they are much harder, though if you are a serious professional not impossible, to get. Your SIM is also going to need initiating when you move between regions in India, so don’t throw your paperwork away or you’ll end up buying another one.
8. Talk to people before you go
If you’ve never really backpacked round India, nor glued together some daft train trip, and even if you have done both, you could probably do with some peer review. If you don’t already happen to know someone who actually does this a lot then you’re in luck as the Internet was invented some time ago.
IndiaMike is as good a travel forum for India as you are likely to find, and I’ve joined just about everyone there is. Once you’ve worked out what you want to do, post your plan in there and let people help you discuss possible issues. I’ve seen a series of accounts about either this or near identical projects, from people who have no previous long distance rail or India travel knowledge, telling you that this is a grueling experience and a battle with Indian bureaucracy. Well it’s just not, or at least doesn’t have to be if you bother to do some proper research before setting off to the train station, and/or you aren’t trying to make this out as something that it isn’t, or you think you can slash even India’s bargain basement costs.