It’s time for another installment of Adventures in Asia. I’m mixing personal travel tales with how-tos, and this week is the latter…
Earlier this year, I spent six weeks travelling through India, much of it by train. Like India in general, the trains were an intense experience, chaotic, busy, sometimes dirty…but I wouldn’t have missed them for the world.
Here’s how to get the most out of travelling by train in India.
1. Decide whether trains are practical for your travel needs.
Pros: trains in India are extremely cheap (all of $10 for a six-hour trip in a decent class), they’re a great way to experience the country while not being insulated from it, they beat buses hands down, and they’re memorable.
Cons: they’re not the most comfortable by Western standards (more about this later), delays can be extensive, and you have to plan ahead.
The best parts of India to see by train are those where you can do 6- or 8-hour hops. That’s why the northern state of Rajasthan is so popular: it boasts a string of cities, most an easy day’s ride apart. If you don’t have time to tour Rajasthan, even more popular is the Golden Triangle: New Delhi–Agra (home of the Taj Mahal)–Jaipur (one of the major cities in Rajasthan)–and back to Delhi.
Certain parts of the country don’t have trains at all — any of the Himalayan states, for example — and in a lot of other cases, the trips required are extremely long. Faced with a 30-hour train ride, for example, you might decide to splash out for a plane ticket instead, or even hire a car. (In India, when you rent a car you also get a driver — which is not prohibitively expensive unless you’re really on a budget.)
2. Book your tickets online ahead of time.
Indian train tickets can be booked through Cleartrip, but if you don’t have an Indian mobile (cell phone) number, you’ll need to contact customer service to get an activation code.
The train system has a confusing number of different classes and trains (read all about them at IndiaMike — a wealth of information). The better ones fill up fast, so book as early as you can — best is to do it at least several weeks ahead. We did manage to get some last-minute seats, but they weren’t on the fastest trains or the best classes.
If you don’t book online, you’ll have to go to the station. New Delhi Railway Station is memorable, but not an experience I’d like to repeat. That’s because…
3. Expect chaos.
Big stations are incredibly busy and chaotic, full of people wanting to carry your luggage (for a fee) or take you to your hotel via rickshaw (for a fee) or begging. They’ll be especially eager if you look like a new tourist, or if you’re at a big tourist destination like one of the Golden Triangle cities. And you have to watch out for pickpockets, and not trust people who offer directions, because they may be part of a scam.
Even boarding and finding your seat can be tricky. When you get to the right platform, you’ll have to watch for electronic signs that will tell you where on the platform to wait for your train car (check your ticket). If you get on the wrong one, you’ll have to haul your luggage up and down the train, asking other passengers which car you’re in, receiving conflicting advice and trying to get a consensus. When you find your seat, there might be someone in it who will insist you’re in the wrong car.
There will be no staff to help; other passengers may be eager to help, but they may also have their information wrong.
Even after we had a handful of train trips under our belt, we still found the station navigation and boarding process to be exhausting and confusing.
4. Persist and learn the patterns.
Despite what I said in #3, it is quite possible to enjoy train travel in India — even if, like us, you’re not the most confident of travellers. Most of the stations where you’ll be getting on or off have electronic signs and announcements in English (smaller ones won’t, but unless you’re well off the beaten track, you shouldn’t have to worry). The complex system of classes starts to make more sense (tip: AC2 and Chair Car are the best; AC3 is also fine). You’ll get used to the layout of the cars. Even running the gauntlet of would-be rickshaw drivers gets easier — by the time we returned to Delhi, we’d mastered the art of ignoring touts so completely that we weren’t hassled for rides at all, even though my light hair attracted plenty of attention throughout India.
5. The level of comfort won’t be what you’re used to.
I mentioned that trains aren’t very comfortable by Western standards. In the classes you’re most likely to travel in, AC2 and AC3, you’re sitting on benches (reasonably well padded) facing other travellers, so there’s not much privacy, and the windows may be tinted so you won’t have a good view. (At night the benches convert into tiered bunks. In AC2, each compartment can be curtained off and the lighting dimmed individually. We managed to avoid any overnight trips, though, so I can’t be any more helpful there.)
If you’re travelling alone or at night, you’ll want to bring a sturdy lock to lock your bag up for security (there’s a ring for that purpose under each bench). The cars aren’t all that clean, particularly the bathrooms. Most of the time you’ll find each car equipped with three squat toilets and one Western-style toilet — usually with no toilet paper, so bring your own (and hand sanitizer!).
6. Make a conscious choice to relax and enjoy the experience.
Despite #5, if you have the ability to take such things in stride, trains are a wonderful way to see the country and meet locals. India hosts a lot of tourists, but almost everywhere you’ll be seriously outnumbered; I’ve been the only white person in a car many times.
AC2, AC3, and Chair Class are how the Indian middle class travels, so your seatmates will tend to be businessmen or students or families. I’ve chatted with a young woman travelling with her mother-in-law and her small son, showed off the sock I was knitting to a cadre of women, and asked lots of people whether we were coming up to our stop yet.
(And no, you don’t need much language in common to share moments like these. It helps if you learn the local pronunciation for places and a few key words, though many people will have a little English.)
And then there’s the cultural flavour. Periodically, someone will come by selling chai (tea) with a long drawn-out shout of “Chaaai!” that recalls a train whistle, or paani (water) with a low, growly “paani-water-paani-water-paani-water”, or bags of chips in strange and wonderful flavours. In Chair Car class, food and chai are provided free, but I learned the hard way not to partake. If in any doubt, bring your own.
Have you travelled by train in India? Any tips to share?
If you liked this post, you might also like other posts in my travel series, Adventures in Asia.