Rameswaram temple. photos by Mark Lester.
The Great Circular Indian Challenge:
Decide to Travel Together
It is 8 O’Clock in the evening, 17th February 2011.
I have somehow found myself, after two years of planning, with 16 other people, milling about Mumbai Central station waiting to embark on something that isn’t supposed to be a very good idea. i.e. travelling for two solid weeks around the very extremities of Indian railways to the furthest points of the compass with a huge group of people.
I have been told that the trains won't turn up or arrive on time so it’s unlikely we’ll get more than a few trains down our route before it all unfolds. If we miss any train then there is simply no way I’ll be able to fit all of us onto sleeper trains that need booking weeks in advance. And even if we do manage to stick to the schedule, we’ll all be too exhausted, sick or hungry to want to carry on.
I have never even met most of the group other than through the internet. Most of them have never visited India before, and even if they have, only a couple of us have ever been on a long distance railway marathon like this in any country. None of us, including myself, think that we’re all going to make it.
Indian Wedding Band
To start the party I have hired an Indian wedding band. It sounded like a novel idea at the time. They start playing right outside the main entrance and make an ear splitting racket. After virtually getting both myself and the band arrested, we are quickly shooed on to the streets outside.
From there I continue, with absolutely no success, to engage my newly acquired travel companions in an impromptu wedding dance. Those that have known me for decades are unfazed. Those that haven’t just gawk in horror. This is going to be every bit as hard as I first thought.
Darjeeling Hill Railway.
The following morning we awake in South Western Gujarat. Our Saurashtra Mail is about to arrive at Dwarka, home of Lord Krishna and also the most westerly point of the Indian rail network. I have arranged in advance for a bus to be waiting for us at the station. There is a balance with this kind of high tempo train travel between sticking to the rails, and keeping up momentum. I have elected for the latter, but if the bus isn’t sitting there for us then, after just one train, the whole expedition is in smithereens. To my immense relief the bus is waiting patiently.
Dwarka in Gujurat
Over the next three days we travel via the most western point of the network at Dwarka in Gujarat, then via spectacular scenery in Rajhastan to Amritsar in Punjab. The route involves scheduling another private bus to keep up momentum. I lose one of the party due to sickness. Apart from being a rather charming guy, he’s also a professional photographer, and I am loathed to lose him. There is another expert picture taker in the group, but he’s turned up with the novel idea that he’s going to blog the trip live with his chum, a world first apparently. I am now reliant on the other total amateurs in the group to provide picture content for my daily blog posts.
On recent previous trips to India the litter problem has appalled me. I had suggested to the group as a whole, and instructed my close friends, that we should buy tiffin boxes in Mumbai and we fill them with food at the stations and avoid leaving our own litter footprint strewn across India. The food available at major Indian stations these days is significantly better than it was 20 and certainly 30 years ago. There is a chain called Comesum in North India which is quite excellent. I fill our tiffins to the brim with a range of vegetarian yummies, and we board the train north.
The group of 16 travelers who shared a two-week train journey across India.
Amritsar is a wonderful experience. Udphampur less so. In Jammu on the return leg back to Delhi, half the group inexplicably leave the train only to be saved from certain disaster with seconds to spare. There is genuine tension in the group now, between those who have brought the stipulated $200 to spend on a two week railathon, and those who haven't.
We now embark on a 40-hour epic rail voyage across the width of India, from the capital all the way to eastern Assam aboard the Dibrugarh Rajdhani.. There are a series of downsides to travelling on Rajdhanis. The first, and most serious, is that the train hardly stops, and when it does it doesn’t do so for very long.
This completely defeats what is the best part of travelling on an Indian train, which is getting off at the stations. A normal express will stay for at least 10 minutes, often much longer. You can get off and get yourself a trackside breakfast, or just some chai, or just mill about. On a Rajdhani you can’t do any of these things. There is no chai wallah boarding the train, no cool drinks wallah, no Indian snacks wallah. The food, while free and acceptable, rapidly becomes monotonous.
Tipong's Coal Mine
Charming and colliery (a coal mine) are not normally two words you'll find in the same sentence. But they belong together at Tipong, at the very eastern end of rails. They actually have temples above the pit shafts. We squeeze just too many people into too few rickshaws on the way back to Tinsukia via several warm beers and an ethnic meal at a local eco lodge. We return westwards in the same carriages we arrived in that morning.
These weren't built for men this size.
After nine days of constant railroading, we finally get to sleep in a stationary bed in Darjeeling on the contingency day I have scheduled. The following day is spent doing not a lot, and absolutely no railways at all.
We arrive in Calcutta, as we have throughout the journey, on time. I elect to go for a leisurely river crossing of the Howrah. Calcutta is surely waking up somewhere, but it isn’t showing much sign of it at BBD Bagh ferry. Finally, our ferry across the Howrah arrives, and we slide silently across the great river beneath the famous bridge.
This eerie calm is broken abruptly as we stride off the ferry on the far side and into the station. Instantly we are flung into the Kolkata rush hour as we cross the station to the hotel I have picked nearby. The city is renowned for it’s food, and the Howrah Station Food Plaza is a cheap and excellent experience. The chaat, which is a sweet and sour crispy and yogurt concoction and a speciality of Bengal, comes highly recommended.
Coromandel Express to Chennai
In the afternoon we take the Coromandal Express to Chennai, and after the largest dosa you are ever likely to be confronted by, continue to the temple town of Rameswaram. A day of pilgrimage there is followed by our penultimate sleeper down to Cape Kanyakumari, the most southern tip of the country and our final corner or the country.
The train arrives long before dawn. It is an odd place, kitsch bric-à-brac stalls line the edge of the beach and it is flooded with tourists from India and abroad at this unearthly hour. We return, via a rickshaw and a local train, up to Trvandrum. After a brief excursion to an unrecognisable Kovalam, we cab it back into Trivandrum and regroup at the excellent Indian coffee house. This unique spiral building is quite fantastic and a must do if you are ever in the area. It has a breezy internal air conditioning system as a result of its cunning design. The coffee and ice creams are pretty damn good too.
The distant Himalayas.
One more major train takes us up the Konkan railway along the west coast of India, and back to where we had started barely a fortnight ago. From there it is just one final hop to litter free Matheran and its world class narrow gauge railway. We have covered over 12,000 km in a few hours under two weeks and one day.
Including all train bookings, a bespoke T-shirt, several buses, numerous taxis and rickshaws, 2 nights in a swanky hotel in Darjeeling, half a dozen hotel wash stops, food, and all beverages, and a wedding band, the cost works out at under £300 each.
None of our trains are late. On-train food is quite bearable. On-platform food, at the big stations, ranges from really quite good to really quite outstanding. ACII carriages are on the whole clean.
The loos aren’t exactly TGV standard, but you get used to them.
I do it all for a heck of a lot less than nothing at all. And with the help and generosity of the other flashpackers in the group, we raise £4,300 for Railway Children. The two bloggers publish an e-book describing their experience as the trip of a lifetime.
I have now taken the concept and applied it to my native Europe. Next July, 12 close friends and I will travel by train to 23 of Europe's capitals, and the Arctic circle, and also take what I consider as the greatest railway ride there is anywhere, the line over the Alps from Tirano to Chur via St Moritz.
We will do all this in just over two weeks. All the tickets, hostels, a couple of buses and even a short arctic plane ride, totals at barely over £1,100. You can read more about that project here on my blog, and you can read more about the India trip, including reports from other people on the trip there too.
Mark Lester is a retired software engineer living in Reading UK. He is married with 2 teenage children and has been travelling to India since the early '80s.
An unusual clay building housing a coffee shop in Trivandrum.
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