Rail Travel, and the Man in Seat 61

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Most readers of my blog probably realize that I love train travel. Trains offer the adventure and sense of journey that overland travel provides, with the comfort and relative dependability of air travel, all wrapped up in an experience that is both civilized and romantic.  Although of course the time demands of modern living mean that train travel isn’t always an option (especially in the United States, where insufficient investment in passenger rail means that very few routes offer practically competitive service), when we are out traveling, roaming the world, I almost always opt to travel by train, whenever possible.

Train travel, like cruises, are sometimes trips unto themselves–with the journey as much an experience as the destination.  The most famous of these is perhaps the Trans-Siberian Railway, which crosses all of Asia on a continuous eight-day journey.  Connections to the Chinese rails, at one end, and the European rail network, on the other, mean that you can travel all the way from London to Saigon, on the rails, starting by crossing the Chunnel on the Eurostar, across Europe on a whole range of networks and then from Moscow to Beijing, and then from Beijing to the Vietnamese railway on the reliable Chinese rail system.

You can search the label “train” on my blog for some information on traveling by train, but the site I usually recommend for international rail travel is The Man in Seat Sixty-One, one of the internet’s very best travel sites, which includes an amazing amount of detail on train systems around the world, including helpful pictures of car layouts, and a surprising number of schedules and fares.  The site is named for his favorite seat on Eurostar first class.  Many thanks to Mark Smith for creating and maintaining such an amazing repository of travel information!

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Back in 2009, I put together a pretty thorough post on train travel in India, including the booking system, different classes of travel, and things you’re likely to see while riding the Indian rails. This is a supplement of that post, including descriptions of some of the different kinds of trains that are available (some with distinct classes of service).

Also, an update on booking: In addition to the Indian Railways (IRCTC) website, which has always been a horror to use (and which does not currently accept overseas credit cards), you can now book train tickets on third party sites through a bridge to the Indian Railways, including my favorite, Cleartrip. Cleartrip, in addition to providing a very pleasant and simple booking interface, has iPhone Passbook integration, bringing Indian rail travel into the 21st century. Please refer to the indispensable www.seat61.com for details on how to set up your IRCTC and Cleartrip accounts.

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If you’ve traveled a great deal around India by train, you’ve probably noticed that there are some “special” types of trains, with different levels of service and fares. One might argue that these trains add complexity to an already complex system, but knowing what they are and offer is important for frequent riders.

The “special” train that travelers are most likely to experience is the Shatabdi Express, which are the fastest and most luxurious daytime trains in the Indian train system. Many travelers end up taking the New Delhi-Bhopal Shatabdi, which departs New Delhi Railway Station for Agra Cantonment Railway Station in the early morning and returns in the late evening, allowing a full day of sightseeing in Agra on a convenient daytrip. This particular run, which takes about two hours, also contains the fastest stretch of the Indian rails, at a maximum speed of 150 km/hr. Shatabdi Express trains offer only AC Chair Car and Executive classes, and cost a pretty hefty premium relative to other trains–but also include meals, tea service and bottled water. In Executive Class the servers also wear nifty outfits! (Unfortunately I don’t have a picture, so you’ll just have to be surprised.)

A Traveller Enjoying Dinner on the Shatabdi Express

Tourist Enjoying Dinner on the Shatabdi Express

The overnight equivalent of the Shatabdi Express is the Rajdhani Express. Rajdhani means “capital,” and the Rajdhani Express trains link Delhi to the largest cities in India. Rajdhanis, like Shatabdis, include free meals and snacks, and are all AC (1AC, 2AC and 3AC classes).

New Delhi - Ahmedabad Rajdhani Express

New Delhi – Ahmedabad Rajdhani Express

Even faster than the Rajdhani is the Duronto (“restless”) Express, which is a nonstop service. It’s actually pretty impressive that these nonstop services exist, given the significant distances they cover. What other train systems have 16-20 hour journeys without a single stop?

The Shatabdi, Rajdhani and Duronto are premium services. The Indian Rail also has special economical services, the Janshatabdi and Garib Rath.

AC Chair Car, on the Green/Yellow Garib Rath

AC Chair Car, on the Green/Yellow Garib Rath

The Janshatabdi Express, or “common” shatabdi, offers similarly fast service as a Shatabdi, but instead of Executive and AC Chair Car classes, has AC Chair Car and Second Class, and no free meals. The Garib Rath offers service that is similar to a Rajdhani, but offers only 3AC and AC Chair Car. Garib Raths are unusual in two respects: they are basically the only trains to offer an air-conditioned seated class for long distance trains, and the 3AC is a special “tighter” configuration that allows more berths per car, and correspondingly lower fares.

AC Chair Class on the Garib Rath

AC Chair Class on the Garib Rath

3AC on the Garib Rath

3AC on the Garib Rath

And, of course, the suburban rails. With subways being built in so many Indian cities now (Delhi’s system is ever expanding, while Mumbai, Bangalore, Kochi and Jaipur are building out new systems), the suburban rail systems may not last too much longer… but with their open air configurations, they can be quite a joy to ride, as long as not during crowded rush hours.

Delhi Parikrama

Delhi Parikrama

Delhi QuickTrip: Pushkar

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Pushkar’s camel fair, which takes place in the fall, is deservedly one of India’s most famous festivals.  Derek and I went together in 2003, and Derek again, alone, in 2009.  Last weekend, we thought we’d try Pushkar sans fair, and found it a very enjoyable getaway.

To get to Pushkar, we traveled by the Haridwar Ahmedabad Mail, which is scheduled to leave Old Delhi Railway Station at 10:20 PM and arrive in Ajmer at 6:40 AM, though our train ran a bit late.  We traveled via 2AC tickets we bought last minute using the tatkal system.  We returned to Delhi on the Ajmer Jat Express, which leaves Ajmer at 2:15 PM and arrives at Delhi Cantonment at 9:13 (and New Delhi Railway Station a bit later).  If tickets had been available, we would probably have preferred the Shatabdi, which leaves Ajmer at 3:45 PM and arrives at New Delhi Railway Station at 10:40 PM.  Those comfortable taking an overnight train back to Delhi could take the Chetak Express, which leaves Ajmer at 10:45 PM and arrives at Delhi’s S Rohilla Station at 5:10 AM.

In Ajmer, we took a quick look at Ajmer’s most famous site before we headed out to Pushkar.  A short autorickshaw ride away from the railway station is the famous shrine of Sufi saint Muinuddin Chisti, which is probably the most significant Muslim religious site in India, if not all of South Asia.  A place of pilgrimage for centuries, the Ajmer shrine is in some ways a giant version of the Nizamuddin shrine in Delhi, a huge religious site full of living medieval architecture and hundreds of pilgrims.  Bags and photography are not allowed–which is a bit annoying–but the energy is incredibly positive and you are likely to hear a bit of Sufi qawwali music.  (Before going to the shrine we also went to the Adhai Din ka Jhonpra, a Jain temple-to-mosque conversion dating from the 12th century–but this is optional.  In case you decide to go, it is walking distance from the shrine.)  From the shrine, we took an autorickshaw direct to Pushkar, which cost 300 rupees.  Cheaper, and probably just as fast, would be to go to the bus station and take a proper bus, although that would also require two short autorickshaw rides to/from the bus stations.  Returning to Ajmer we took a bus, which was fast, and fun.  Early for our train, we had lunch at the local/divey, terrific Medina Hotel across the street from Ajmer’s railway station.

In Pushkar we stayed at the Paramount Palace, in a lovely room with a small balcony overlooking Pushkar, perhaps slightly overpriced at 1000 rupees.  Had we booked in advance, we probably would have stayed at Seventh Heaven, which is the most proper/professional of the budget hotels in Pushkar.  The Bharapur Palace was also tempting, with its lakeside location.

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What is there to see or do in Pushkar?  Almost nothing, which makes for a very relaxing weekend indeed.  We walked over to see the fairgrounds just outside of town, which were almost entirely empty (since the fair was not on), and did one circuit of Pushkar’s holy lake, where people were bathing (and some guards/priests enforcing the “no shoe” rule in an annoying manner).  Pushkar is a huge destination for both tourists and pilgrims, even when the fair is not on, making for good people watching (everything from very colorful Rajputs in marvelous turbans to Israelis with dreads) and shopping.  We had kurtas tailored, with special iPhone-sized pockets.  We had cokes and pots of chai on our balcony, overlooking the town.  We sat eating terrific falafel wraps and watched folks walk down the main bazaar (the town is entirely veg–not even eggs available for breakfast!).  Admittedly, some of the relaxingness of the weekend wore away with the long slog back home (which would have been better, I think, had we been on the Shatabdi), but we will certainly return to Pushkar again, for both the camel fair and for simple relaxation.

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Camel Fair

 

Delhi QuickTrip: Khajuraho and Orchha

Kandariya Mahadev Temple, Khajuraho, India

For the past three-day weekend, we decided to revisit a site we’d already visited, and to take in a new site on the way back.  One should probably choose one of the two for an ideal weekend trip, and I will provide the logistics for those preferred itineraries.

Sexually explicit carvings Lakshmana Hindu Temple, Khajuraho, India

Khajuraho is a peaceful small town in Madhya Pradesh famous for the amazing sculpture, much of it erotic and some of it downright “pornographic”, on its 10th/11th century Hindu and Jain temples.  Khajuraho is certainly worthy of a revisit, but what really drove it as a destination for us this past weekend was the relatively last minute availability of overnight train tickets–on the UP Sampark Kranti which departs Delhi’s Nizamuddin Station at 8:15 PM and arrives in Khajuraho at 6:35 AM.  The rail connection to Khajuraho is fairly new–when we first visited in 2003, Khajuraho was, for those who didn’t want to fly, a painful multihour jeep/bus journey from the nearest railheads–and the rail connection seems to have caused fairly positive developments in Kharuraho’s tourist infrastructure, including a better selection of hotels and restaurants and a pedestrianized area in the core of the town near the greatest set of ruins.  We stayed at the Hotel Surya, which cost less than 600 rupees for a non-AC room booked online.  (I should note that while there are some upscale hotels in town, none of them are walking distance from the ruins.)

One could easily spend two nights or more in Khajuraho.  The town is peaceful, the selection of food and lodging pretty good, and, even if the ruins themselves would occupy only a day of sightseeing, there are likely pleasant walks and bicycle rides that could be had, strengths that come from it’s being pleasantly quasi-rural for a major Indian tourist site.  But because my time was limited, we didn’t want to take an overnight train back to Delhi and Khajuraho still has no nonstop flights to Delhi (flights to Khajuraho go on a triangular Delhi to Khajuraho to Varanasi to Delhi routing), we stayed only one night in Khajuraho and took a rather painfully slow daytime passenger train to Orchha, which left Khajuraho at 12:30 PM and arrived after sunset.  To return directly from Khajuraho to Delhi, you could take the UP Sampark Kranti back, which departs Khajuraho at 6:20 PM and arrives at Nizamuddin at 5:30 AM, if you are okay with an overnight return trip, or take the Khajuraho – Udaipur InterCity, which departs Khajuraho at 9:10 AM, and then transfer to a Delhi train (such as the Shatabdi, see below) at Jhansi, Gwalior or Agra (probably the first, in order to have the safest connection).

Riders on a train in Madhya Pradesh, India

From Orchha station, which is right before Jhansi Junction, we caught an auto rickshaw to Orchha town, about a 20 minute journey for which you will certainly be overcharged.  By the time we checked into our hotel (unremarkable but cheap Fort View Guest House), it was dark.  Were we to do it again, or arrive at Orchha earlier, we would certainly try to book the Maharaja Suite at the Hotel Sheesh Mahal, which is the state-run establishment that is the only lodging in the fort itself.  Being a state-run hotel the Sheesh Mahal is not fancy, but the Maharaja Suite is fairly impressive, and for a relatively low price of around $100 allows you the experience of staying in a unique and private part of the old palace.  The Maharani Suite, next to the dining room, is nowhere near as impressive–we imagine the substantially cheaper regular rooms may be more appealing.  The Sheesh Mahal is also, by our limited experience, probably the best place to eat in town.  We visited some of the more upscale hotels located just away from the town center but were not really drawn to any of them (despite really wanting to be).  With one’s own transport the Bundelkhand Riverside may be okay, and we didn’t visit the fanciest hotel in town (the Amar Mahal), though its location didn’t inspire us.

Orchha may be one of the most impressive sites in India that are not commonly visited.  Though seemingly well frequented by tour groups (including especially Korean tour groups), which may find it an easy stop from Khajuraho, there are not very many tourists considering the tremendousness of the fort.  The Jahangir Mahal, in particular, is extremely explorable, and in most ways just as impressive as any of the palaces in Rajasthan.  Chaturbhuj Temple, which is in Orchha town, is also unique–a vast cathederal-like Hindu temple with an impressively high roof with a good view.  Like Khajuraho, Orchha is also pleasantly rural (and less tourist-oriented to boot), and would be a good base for walks and bicycle rides (we are also intrigued by the “mud-hut home stays” listed in the Lonely Planet).  Of the places we’ve visited “near” Delhi so far, Orchha is the one that we could most easily imagine visiting repeatedly.

Jahngir Mahal, inside Orchha Fort, Orchha, India

Chaturbhuj Temple, Orchha, India

To return to Delhi from Orchha, we took an auto rickshaw to Jhansi Junction and then the comfortable Shatabdi to New Delhi Railway Station, which leaves Jhansi at 5:59 PM and arrives in Delhi at 10:45 PM (though odds seem to be that it will run late).  The excellent timing of the Shatabdi return trip makes a simple weekend trip to Orchha easy.  Any number of overnight trains departs Delhi for Jhansi, including the Dakshin Link SF Express, which departs Nizamuddin at 11:00 PM and arrives in Jhansi at 5:20 AM, giving you a full 1.5 days in Orchha for a two-day weekend.  If you want to arrive Friday night, a few different trains leave Delhi in the afternoon and make it to Jhansi Junction about five to six hours later, though unless you leave a bit earlier in the afternoon that would mean an Orchha arrival after midnight.

Jahangir Palace, inside Orchha Fort, Orchha, India

Delhi QuickTrip: Ahmedabad

Ornate carved Jali at Sidi Sayyid Mosque, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

Jali window at Sidi Sayid Mosque

My first QuickTrip is actually pretty far afield:  Ahmedabad, the largest city of Gujarat.  We headed to Ahmedabad last weekend not because it was a logical destination for a QuickTrip (rather, I think it’s better as part of an extended Gujarat trip, since any travel in Gujarat likely passes through Ahmedabad), but because a friend of ours from New York happened to be in town visiting family during a festival, and we wanted to take the trip down to see her and to experience the festival.  Uttarayan, a holiday also known as Mahar Sakranti and celebrated in Ahmedabad as a kite festival, takes place from January 13-15 or so, and is an excellent time to visit Ahmedabad.  However, the city has more than enough to merit a visit even outside of those dates:  beautiful, impressive and distinct architecture; a lively old city that is a mix of different religious/cultural groups; and of course the distinct and tasty cuisine, available at a good selection of restaurants.  Oh, by the way, you should know that Ahmedabad is not pronounced Ahmed-a-bad, but rather Ahm’dabad (three syllables).

To get from Delhi to Ahmedabad we took an overnight train, the Rajdhani, which departs New Delhi Railway Station at 7:55 PM and arrives at Ahmedabad Junction at 9:35 AM.  As those of you familiar with Indian trains may be aware, the Rajdhani is the fanciest big category of overnight trains, and the timeliness and maintenance of the cars is kept to a fairly high standard.  Meals are also included in the slightly premium fares.  In order to be well-rested for work on Monday, I flew back, on an Indigo flight departing Ahmedabad at 7:50 PM and arriving in Delhi at 9:20 PM.  In Ahmedabad we stayed at the Hotel Volga, which cost around 1000 rupees.  Those looking for fancier digs should consider the House of MG, a heritage property located in an old mansion, that is upward of $100 or so and also in a prime downtown location.  Memorable meals included Agashiye, the Gujarati thali restaurant on the roof of the House of MG, and Gopi Dining Hall, a more affordable restaurant that also did a very good Gujarati thali.

Agashiy Menu at the House of MG restaurant, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

Gujarati thali at House of MG

We spent our first day seeing the major historical sites of the town.  Our first stop was the “shaking minarets” of Sidi Bashir Mosque, which is just south of the railway station (a 5-10 minute walk).  The mosque is not impressive in size, but it is quite old (built 1452) and represents an unusual style of mosque.  Then, before we even checked into our hotel, we went to the Dada Hari Vav, an amazing stepwell not too far from the railway station.  This is a pretty astonishing example of a Gujarati stepwell, though I understand that there are a few that are even more amazing in the state.  We also saw a second stepwell nearby–while the walk was interesting, the well itself was nowhere near the Dada Hari.

Hari-ni Vav step well in Ahmedabad, India

After checking into our hotel, we walked from the Sidi Sayid Mosque to the Friday Mosque, which takes in much of the historical core of the city.  Sidi Sayid’s Mosque, known in town simply as “jali” for its famous jail windows, and located just across the street from House of MG and also near the Hotel Volga.  A walk from there toward the Friday Mosque takes you through the most colorful parts of the city, which also happens to be a largely Muslim area.  We strongly recommend seeing this area during both the day and the night, as nighttime brings a different atmosphere, especially around the market areas.  Near the central Teen Darwaja is the Bahdra Fort, which is somewhat ruined but the roof of which provides interesting exploration for a good half hour.

Jama Masjid or Friday Mosque, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

Jama Masjid

The Friday Mosque, dating from 1423, is easily one of the most beautiful in India, and interestingly different from the red Mughal creations further north (though the carved pillars are similar to the also reused Jain pillars at the Qutb Minar).  The area just south of the mosque is an interesting market area.  For a quirky and interesting view of the mosque, take the (scary/decrepit) cast iron spiral staircase in the back of the fruit market up to the roof.

On the second day, following the recommendation of our friend, we took the government walking tour, starting from the Swaminarayan Temple.  We recommend the tour, which takes you not through the city’s major sites (which we covered on the first day), but through the city’s fascinating “pols,” or neighborhoods.  The House of MG also organizes walking tours, which I imagine are good.

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After spending part of the afternoon revisiting some of the sites from the previous day, I taxied to the airport for my flight, while Derek stayed behind to take kite festival pictures.

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