Red Fort, Delhi, India

The Indian Railway: More Than A Tale Of Survival

Derek India 21 Comments

Indian Railway - Red Fort, Delhi, India
A few weeks have passed since I’ve mentioned the country of India in any of my posts, and that’s an amount of time that I consider unacceptable for someone who is as addicted to India as I am.

So be warned, this post is all about India and an experience involving an the Indian Railway.

However, I’m not going to talk about my own experiences traveling or volunteering or living in this huge, diverse land. Instead, I want to bring your attention to the experiences of another traveler, Mr. Drew Gilbert.

I first met Drew and family (he’s been traveling around the world with his wife Christine and their adorable son Cole) just before Christmas last year while in Thailand. I think the first time I met him was at an Indian restaurant actually. I know for certain that the last time I hung out with him was at the PS Lanna Bowling Lanes in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

And while Drew may not exactly be a world-class bowler, he sure is a solid guy, one with whom I thoroughly enjoyed talking and getting to know. Even more, he’s one talented storyteller (which I’ll get to in a minute). Anyway, shortly after Drew, Christine and Cole left Thailand, they traveled eastward, landing in India. And given my own love of this land, it was only natural that I would follow his adventures closely.

During Drew’s visit to the subcontinent he decided to participate in what, to many, might be considered complete insanity. He joined a small group of people who embarked on the Great Indian Railway Challenge, a 16-day train journey that circumnavigated the entire country of India, traveling in one giant circle and covering 12,000 kilometers along the way.

Indian Railway - New Delhi Train Station

As if one simple overnight train journey in India wasn’t full of enough challenges, Drew wanted to delve even deeper, to challenge himself as much as possible. So off he went to experience India in a way that few people would ever have a chance to do.

But here’s the thing, Drew knew what he was doing. He knew his insane train journey would be full of rewards and lessons that only an intense Indian adventure could provide and so instead of passing the time with eyes closed, just waiting for the trip to finally reach its end, he chose to keep his eyes as wide open as he possibly could at all times. He kept his eyes open in Mumbai, Dwarka, Delhi, Assam, Darjeeling, Kolkata, Chennai, Rameswaram and every city, town and village in between.

As a result, he not only has an amazing story to share, but he has also given every one of us an opportunity to feel India, to explore India and to learn from India just as he did. Being the gifted storyteller he is, Drew has managed to transform his unique observations and experiences into…

“a wildly entertaining tale about one man’s lengthy train journey around the fascinating world that is India. It’s a useful travel guide, educational tool and brilliant personal account of the shocks, surprises, struggles and unfamiliar observations that every travel to India must deal with. Drew’s honest writing style also brings the reader directly into the story and once you finish reading this book, one thing is for certain. You’ll be more excited than ever to experience India for yourself.”

The above really sums it all up. I actually wrote those words as a review immediately after I finished reading his excellent book, Surviving The Indian Railway.

And the reason I wanted to write this post now and bring it to your attention is just in case any of you…

a) plan to visit India and are looking for a unique way to learn what to expect
b) want to visit India but need some extra inspiration before you book a flight
c) have already visited India and want to relive your surreal adventures
c) enjoys reading high-quality travel stories that immediately transport you to the destination being described

If you fit into any of those categories, I just thought you might be interested in having a read of Drew’s story as well. It’s even more entertaining than watching him go bowling.

Surviving The Indian Railway – $9.99 – Click here for more details

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Comments 21

  1. Hello Earl,
    The project title was actually The Great Circular Indian Railway Challenge. It took me 2 years to organise, and I invited anyone I could find, including Drew Gilbert, as a charity exercise. Not everyone on board seemed to understand that part of the project.
    We were told by loads of people, actually just about everyone, that it wasn’t a feasible idea. Most of the people on the trip, including Drew and his mate, hadn’t even been to India before, nor on a seriously long distance train trip, ever.
    Well, in the end, everyone raved about the experience. Some people are even selling books about it!.
    I will contact Julian, one of your commenters who looks a bit pig sick stuck on an upper berth on SL, but for the benefit of anyone reading this and fancying doing a bit of Indian Railroading themselves, you need to do 2 things
    1. Travel in AC II if you are going any kind of distance, certainly overnight.
    2. As a result of 1, you’ll need to book things in advance, usually at least a week. If it’s something like Mumbai to/from anywhere on the west coast then make that a month.
    This advice, and quite a bit more, is repeated endlessly in the blog
    You don’t have to go ACII, you can always just turn up the day before you want to go somewhere and bag one of the tourist quota berths in SL, but unless you are pretty indestructible I guarantee you’ll spend the entire trip thinking “why didn’t I do what the smug English bloke told me to do, I’d easily pay double to get out of this mess”.
    You have been warned ;).

    1. Thanks for all that information Mark! I’ve done plenty of train travel in India myself and while I’ve almost always used a Second Class Sleeper, even on overnight trips, for those who have not spent a good amount of time in India yet, I agree that AC II is a wise idea 🙂

      And congratulations on pulling off the event…I wanted to participate myself but was unable to organize my schedule to make it all work. But you’re right, everyone I know who did participate absolutely did love the experience!!

      1. SL works for one night, is half the price of ACII and you can usually get a tourist quota ticket on demand. It’s got the naturell A/C, i.e the iron bars, and plenty of freaky people who just wont stop staring at you (that’s a genuine plus for some of us of course, but not if you are a girlie I would say).
        ACII means thinking ahead and thus committing to a schedule. The very nature of India makes that hard I agree.

        If you are long term shoestring backpacking then sure, SL is the way. But if you are visiting India for just a few weeks, even if you are doing it on the cheap, it’s frankly totally counter productive for an overnighter in my opinion. Diving on and off the train at stops is harder, so you’ll see less, and there’s just no two ways about it, SL is bloody uncomfortable after about 12 hours. At the end of it all you’ll be so buggered that you’ll need to crash out for a day. Not a prob if you dont intend on ever coming home, but multiply your intercontinental airfare by the fraction of your holiday you just wasted and the maths is irresistible.
        In ACII you could even arrive in any big city in the morning ready to rumble, give it a real good go and then get on another at the end of the day.
        Here’s another report, from a guy who coincidently had a very similar idea after meeting one of the girls booked onto our trip, but he decided to do it all in SL
        Despite being a fresh young thing, he was utterly annihilated when he got back to Delhi, and the thing is it cost him 65% of what it cost us anyway. (OK, he did it solo, and most of his extras went down the drain in Mumbai cos he hadnt really worked stuff out first, but still).

  2. I want to call myself a world traveller, but I’m pretty sure that a trip to India is one of the pre-requesites. And once there, a train journey is a must like the TaJ Mahal. I have ridden an overnight train in China, but I’m sure it’s nothing like this…

    1. Hey Matt – I say you’re definitely a world traveller! I consider anyone who gets out there and goes anywhere a world traveller. The places one visits is not nearly as important as the desire to get out there and explore the world. But when you do make it to India, I’m quite sure you won’t forget any overnight train experiences you may experience 🙂

  3. I took several train rides when I was there last summer. I couldn’t exactly say that I enjoyed it, but I’m definitely glad that I experienced it. My favorite part is that you can hangout the door and no one stops you, it’s freeing, really. I wrote about my experience on my
    blog. Whether or not I go on a train in India again, I probably will, I can’t wait to go back to India.

    1. Hey Julian – It seems that most travelers who leave India immediately can’t wait to get back there. I have that feeling all the time!

  4. Hey Earl,

    Indian railways can be such a daunting yet wonderful experience! I go back to India every year to visit my grandparents and once I am there, I always take the journey by train; love the feel of every city it stops by and the whole journey is always just so invigorating! Definitely a vital part of the Indian adventure!

    1. Hey Hajra – I don’t think there is any other country on the planet where a simple train journey is such a rewarding cultural experience! I actually look forward to long train journeys in India, something that I would never look forward to in any other country 🙂

  5. Hey Earl

    I’m very keen to get to India, not sure about the train, but perhaps if I give Drew’s book a read I’ll change my mind! Awesome post…thank you! 😉

    1. Hey Angela – Any trip to India must include a train ride. It’s much more than transportation over there…it’s a vital part of the Indian adventure!

  6. I’m invited to attend a friend’s wedding in Delhi this December, then sight see w/the couple a bit (he’s American, She’s a Delhi local) and start the new year there.

    Timely post and info for me – thnx!

    1. Hey Maria – A trip to India for a wedding is such a good way to experience that country. I’m jealous that you’ll be over there in my favorite land!!

  7. “A few weeks have passed since I’ve mentioned the country of India in any of my posts, and that’s an amount of time that I consider unacceptable for someone who is as addicted to India as I am.”

    This made me laugh – I’m currently writing about (and travelling in!) Latin America but spend most of my time thinking about writing about India and how to get back there ASAP.

    Drew’s book is a fun read. I think travelling by rail in India is one of those quintessential experiences that every traveller must do at least once in their life. It’s so much fun and it really operates as a microcosm of the entire country.

    1. Hey Megan – It’s funny because I have that thought in my head quite a lot as well. I’m always thinking of how I can fit another trip to India into my next adventures. In fact, on my next visit to the US, I’m going to get the 10-year tourist visa so that all I’ll have to do when the urge strikes is buy the plane ticket 🙂

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