It had been more than ten years since our family had last visited India.We had the opportunity recently to spend a reasonable chunk of time in India-a month, and decided to use the extensive Indian railway network to explore the length and breadth of this sprawling,kaleidoscopic nation.In previous trips we had only visited the northern end of India namely Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan.This time we expressly wanted to see what the south had to offer,so to further this aspiration we chose to travel by train.
On the train
The attraction to travel by train is not merely the fact that it’s sweet on the hip pocket-I mean we traveled about 4000 kilometers from the southern city of Chennai all along the west coast up into the north eastern hills at Haldwani all for a mere few hundred dollars (RS 21,500 which is about $480 USD).The best thing about the train experience is meeting people and getting more enmeshed in the local life than you would’ve been if you simply traveled by air.When we traveled on the Kanykumari Express train from Chennai to Kanyakumari we met with a NRI south Indian family who were back showing their colleague the sights around their home town.Their colleague was an Italian national who was working with the Indian couple in Vietnam in an Australian university.How’s that for six degrees of separation!We had just come from Australia and in conversation with the Italian guy we mentioned how we had watched some popular Italian T.V shows in Sydney which of course he knew about.Another time on train Suryanagari Express from Mumbai to Jodphur we met an extended Indian family-four generations,heading to their hometown near Jodhpur for a family wedding.They chatted to us about life and politics in current day India and even offered some of their home cooked food which they had bought along in tiffins for the journey.This is a very Indian family thing to do on trains-your own picnic in the passenger compartment.
Tropical south India as seen from the train
If you don’t bring your own food there’s several options that might suit you but don’t expect gastronomy extraordinaire. Some trains have their own kitchens or alternatively they take a food order from you, relay it to another station way up ahead and then pick it up from there and deliver it to you.I had ordered a chicken biriyani and I found it way too full of chillies for my taste(but that’s just me). Another issue with the ordered food is that if you are not an adept juggler you will find your sleeping space Jackson Pollocked with your train food provisions. My husband’s meal was a rice and curry dish.The rice was packed in a foil tray,similar to the ones you get on airlines but the liquid curry was in a small plastic lunch bag tied with thread.There were no bowls or cutlery so you had to be mighty careful not to spill the soft capsule all over the place.Needless to say we made alternative arrangements on subsequent trips.When we left Mumbai,we bought a loaf of supermarket bread,cucumbers,tomatoes and cheese slices to make our own sandwiches.Another time we asked our hotel in Jodphur-Hotel Fifu to make up two dry vegetable dishes-aloo methi (potatoes and fenugreek leaves) and fried bhindi (okra) as well as some pooris (deep fried bread)for the trip.With nothing to spill it was a much pleasanter eating experience.
If time has tethered your efforts to make suitable eating arrangements you could be accommodated by the traveling train vendors.Train food hawkers were on most trains we traveled on throughout the day and up till dinner time.They sell food specific to the region you’re in.They carry their wares from carriage to carriage on a silver box tray above their shoulder,hollering out their specialty.In the south you’ll hear the call for idlis,dosai and bread omlette.Going up towards Goa you’ll find tomato soupy very popular and further north is something unique I’d never heard of before-”chicken lollipop”.Chicken lollipop is basically a chicken bone with spicy chicken meat molded on the top.Heading towards Jodhpur one of the vendors had a namkeen or salty snack with all the trimmings.With such deftness and skill on a moving train he filled a paper cone with fried lentils and topped it off with the customer’s preferred seasonings-chillies,other spices,cilantro leaves,onions and so on.Some vendors carry urns with hot tea or coffee and others carry chocolates and bottled water.For the procrastinators who can’t choose on board there’s always the option of jumping train at one of the stations that has an extended stay.Usually other passengers are in the know and they’ll tel you which stations the train waits over at.Those particular stations are very well stocked with all sorts of cooked food and snacks.Just make sure you’re not late getting back on again.
Musical company on the train-an Indian naval officer.
Talking about being late-all the trains we took were on time save one.I had been warned that the trains were unreliable but was very pleasantly surprised that they were definitely reliable.We booked all our trains on cleartrip.com,which books directly for you at the Indian Railways.There is an Indian Railway site but it requires a local Indian credit card and the site crashes easily during the booking process.The following is a list of tips which I think are helpful-
Chennai Railway Station
TIPS TO REMEMBER ON TRAINS
1.Bear in mind that the train station on your ticket may not be as close as you think.In big cities like Mumbai their are many train stations-some about an hour from the CBD so check the distance well beforehand.
2.Make sure you get to the station at least half an hour before the train leaves.Show a train station employee your ticket and ask them where your carriage/bogey will pull up at the station.Some trains only wait at the station for a few minutes and if you’re at the wrong end you might find yourself struggling to get on in time with your luggage amongst all the crowds.
3.Once you’re in the carriage locate your seat and place your luggage underneath it pronto.If you’re not quick the space will get taken up-the space scramble is just like on the planes.Padlock your luggage and you might even want to chain your bags to the carriage.In some trains there are hooks designed for this purpose.
3.Carry a light blanket or woolen shawl with you.The class of train travel you have booked determines what type of bedding you will receive-in some basic seats it’s none.We traveled in AC 2 Tier and we received a pillow,two flat sheets and a woolen blanket.The shawl gives you extra warmth and comfort.Oftentimes in the AC carriage we were subjected to very erratic temperatures.At times it was arctic and other times it was balmy.
4.Keep your printed E-ticket handy with you as the ticket master always checks them off,and verifies your ID as well.
5.If you’re on an overnight train sleeping time is meant to be at 9 pm.If you are positioned on the lower berth and travelers from the upper berth are sitting there, (as they have the right to do during the day) you can request them to vacate your bed at 9pm.Likewise be prepared to be disturbed at 6am the next day.This is the time when newcomers arrive onto the train and expect to be awake and seated.
6.Set an alarm for yourself.Train workers do from time to time alert passengers about up and coming stations but you might be in a stupor at that time and miss it.Plus you’ll need time to gather all your stuff.
7.Consider carrying your own toiletry supplies-meaning toilet paper and soap.Out of the 12 or so trains we traveled on only one supplied toilet paper(Bhopal Shatabdi from Delhi to Agra).Likewise there was rarely any soap and you’ll feel like you need it as the toilets are not sparkling.
8.If you’re in any sort of AC class you won’t be able to open the windows.To get some good photos you’ll have to hang out the door to the carriage but it’s worth it as India has some spectacular scenery.
Commuters on suburban Mumbai train
Mumbai's famous CST train station
Gothic detail of Mumbai's CST station
. . . → Read More: Trekking by Train across India