Technicolor greens, brilliant saris, ancient temples: these are my clearest memories of riding India’s Railways. I still recall the rickshaws and rivers full of people bathing and washing clothes, as the tropical landscape passed in a constant, captivating blur.
My vivid memories speak to the power and allure of train travel. After all, a railway itinerary allows travelers the opportunity to experience a destination in a way that’s just not possible from the air. Above the clouds, it’s hard to tell the difference between a hillstation and a town by the coast. From a train window, the passing vistas are completely distinct.
Covering 8000 kms, across 7 destinations in India is no doubt an ambitious project but the lifeline of Indian transport, the Indian railways, not only made it possible, but transformed it into an adventure of epic proportions. Life on the train is a life like no other. Its a life I wouldn't mind living all over again.
At every station half-asleep fellow passengers fill their plastic water bottles from platform taps or drink tea poured from huge chrome kettles by wide-awake “chai wallahs”. Stray dogs dart past, scavenging for food. A blast on the train’s hooter warns us it’s time to move on. Slowly the great caterpillar of carriages pulls off and we clamber back aboard.
Indian Railways have entranced dreamers, intrigued authors and inspired filmmakers. That's because there's no other railway like them on Earth. Airlines still haven't managed to reach the nooks and crannies of India. But no matter how remote, there is always a train that can get you there.
With 18 million daily passengers, 1.4 million employees and 17,000 trains operating on 64,000 kilometres of track, it's a locomotive pick and mix of sizes, speeds, shapes and colours – and that's just the passengers.
But what really motivated us to do this trip was just the amount of the country we'd get to see. All the little hamlets, towns and cities we'd pass through, the different dialects we'd get to encounter. Even the most spectacular train ride offers riders something many travelers crave these days: authenticity. A flight across Vietnam is an identical experience to a plane ride in India, Canada, or Australia, but a train trip gives insight into the culture of a country. The journey becomes part of the experience.
I think thats what got us through the pure mental and physical exhaustion. The joy, the adrenaline of doing something so exciting and being able to go back home and narrate the exciting stories we got to experience.
This trip isn't about the destinations, its about the journey. The Indian Railways has a few tales to tell, so buckle your seatbelt and listen carefully.
Day 1 saw us set off from Mumbai on the Duronto express to reach Ahmedabad
The scenery is mesmerizing, and the food quite good. Earlier, there were only overnight trains with no air conditioning facility. But the Duronto is extremely comfortable and comes with the option of AC 2 tier, and 3 tier berths. The total duration of the trip was 6 hours. The train did not halt at any stations in between and Mumbai and Ahmedabad, but we did see some mesmerising views of the western coast. Some places that you can catch glimpses of are Surat, Daman and Diu, and Dadar and Nagar Haveli. The most exciting aspect was getting to eat vada pao's which was offered to us by a Maharastrian family of 4.
We stopped at Ahmedabad for a day as I had always wanted to visit the Sabarmati Ashram. Located on the banks of the river, this is a quiet and very peaceful place with a lot of trees and beautiful birds. The museum has numerous displays about the life of Gandhi and especially about his time in Ahmedabad with the Ashram. Informative and well presented in English, Hindi, and Gujarati. We spent a bit over an hour and could easily have spent more time seeing more and simply enjoying the tranquillity of the place. A very worthy experience.
After some authentic Gujarati fare, we set off for our next destination, the heart of India, Delhi. This is a longer route, taking up almost 12 hours. For this route we chose the Rajdhani express, which is extremely reliable.
The train is a new one, only being introduced in March this year. The berths are sparkling clean, and the food is of excellent quality. From Ahmedabad onwards the scenery begins to metamorphosis into the deserts of Rajasthan. The fact that we just passed by the ocean yesterday was really too enormous to fathom. We were really tired after the long journey, so we decided to stopover in Delhi for a whole day. Of course this also gave us some time to sample some delicious chaat in Bengali Market and then shop in Janpath and C.P. On a friends recommendation, I also went shopping in Shankar Market which is in one of the lanes inside C.P. This concluded our stay in Delhi and we geared up for the next leg of the journey to Patna.
We chose the Duronto Express which is one of the handful of non-stop express trains covering major cities. It covers a fantastic route with the most varied topography and the onboard service is excellent. From 11am until sunset, the train trundles past rivers, deserts, mountains and villages and alongside pyramid-like salt mounds drying in the sunshine. Brand new Durontos – meaning "quick" in Bengali – offer tasty meals included in the ticket price, second to none cleanliness, new interiors and a sleeker design for reading lights, phone sockets, berths and bottle holders. The added benefit is that the trains are also derailment-proof. The total journey time is 21 hours and the train runs only on Sundays.
Plenty of express trains run between Vishakapatnam and Bhubaneshwar and take around 7 hours. The scenery begins to change again as you pass through the Eastern coast. We had wanted to visit the beaches of Vizag as it is often called Goa of the Eastern Coast. So we booked ourselves into the The Park. Overlooking the Bay of Bengal, this luxurious property sprawling over 6 acres of a spectacular private beachfront. Sandy beaches complete with a lighthouse underline the romance of the sea with breathtaking sunrises and lovely tropical gardens. Perhaps a day was too less as the hotel is excellent. But we still had a lot of cities to cover, so back we went to the railway station the next morning to head into Chennai.
The Vizag-Chennai Central Express reaches Chennai in about 13 hours. It passes through quaint fishing hamlets of Vellore, Vijaywada and Guntur. Men in lungis and women in their brightly coloured sarees are some common sights. Every coastal town has a distinct flavour of its own. The western coast and eastern coast are so different and yet similar.
We did not stop for very long in Chennai as we had visited Chennai before. But if you like, you can visit some of Chennai's many beaches. The Fisherman's Cove is a lovely resort to have lunch by the beach or even to stay the night.
Bangalore was the last stop on our trip before we headed back to Mumbai. The distance between Chennai and Bangalore is not much. The route is absolutely fantastic. You could even choose to take the road, and take a bus or rent a car. Bangalore is a lovely city which has still retained some of its town like qualities. M.G Road and Brigade road is a nice place to do some sightseeing and shopping before heading back. A lot of malls have come up here as well. Do sample some excellent masala dosa and filter coffee before you leave. The best thing about Bangalore was the weather. After such a strenuous trip, it was nice to just take it easy and relax. And the next morning we sat in our last train to Mumbai taking a bit of every city we've visited with us.