I went to India for the first time in 2014. After the first few days of being lost and stumbling around, trying to understand what was going on, I fell in love with the country. I went back two more times in 2017 and 2018. I was planning to go back a fourth time, but I left London to move to Chicago. Unfortunately, the pandemic happened, and I haven’t managed to go back yet. Each time I traveled by train: the first time from Delhi to Varanasi and from there to Mumbai, hitting most of the historical cities in Rajasthan; the second time from Mumbai to Kerala on the west coast; and the third from Kerala to Kolkata. As difficult as it can be, I am convinced that traveling by train is the best way to see this incredible country.
You can either click here to read my daily postcards in one go or if you want to know all sort on boring info – where I stayed, what I ate, what I saw – about my trip click here.
Or just keep scrolling.
Culture shock anyone?
India is not for everyone. The first time I went, I thought I was well-prepared. I had watched hundreds of videos, read blogs and travel guides, spoken to a number of Indian friends and colleagues. I was expecting to find cultural differences and I was ready.
Nope. Not even close. It was just too much. Everything was too much: too many people, too hot, too dirty, too polluted, too much poverty. I constantly felt like everyone was trying to scam me. For a good 48 hours, I felt like a boxer hit by an uppercut, staggering around dazed and confused. Chatwin’s famous saying “What am I doing here?” constantly echoed in my head. I seriously thought about going back to London.
I left Delhi and went to Agra, where even the beautiful elegance of the Taj Mahal and the majesty of the Agra Fort couldn’t help shake off that queasiness, that feeling of being in a place I didn’t really belong to. Still, I held on and tried to get to my next destination, Varanasi. But things got even worse.
The Magadh Express train to Mughalsarai, near Varanasi, was leaving late at night from Tundla Railway Station, a quick 20-mile cab drive east of Agra. Entering the station, I found myself in a surreal dystopian reality: thousands of birds lined up on the power lines, yelling out their perpetual sharp, piercing whining; an incomprehensible sound coming out from the speaker like a somber lullaby; tens of rats as big as cats running around amidst all the other travelers’ total indifference. As soon as the train to Mughalsarai arrived, I ran to the platform, found my four-bunk beds compartment, climbed to the top bunk, and fell asleep hugging my backpack, mentally and emotionally exhausted. The following day, I woke up at sunrise to find out that a family of six had joined the compartment. Each and every one of my new travel buddies was staring at me. The father, a guy in his late thirties, started chatting:
– Where are you from Sir?
– I am Italian but I live in London, UK
– Ooh I see… Do you have any kids back home?
– Ooh I see…I have four. Are you married?
– Ooh I see…Here is my wife. Do you have a girlfriend?
– Ooh I see… my man, what are you waiting for?! You are wasting your time!
I don’t know if it was that conversation that made me laugh out loud, or the beautiful sunrise over the Ganges plain, or simply the tiredness taking over. But I know for sure that from that moment, I stopped trying to understand what was going on around me and took everything in as it was. And then the magic happened.
Postcards from India
Day 1: Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi
In the largest spice market in Asia, there are so many scents that you can hardly breathe. A cycle rickshaw drives me around these streets, shouting and turning like an F1 driver to avoid goats, dogs, and the trillion people who drive, walk, and live in this maze. It is inevitable that we end up hitting someone who reacts by head-butting him. He is bleeding, and I tell him to go see a doctor. His smiling answer before jumping back on the rickshaw is, “Is this your first day in India? No worries, this is normal here. And welcome to Delhi!“
Day 2: Agra
Preamble, last week:
– My mate, a doctor: “Don’t even think to try street food in India!“
– Me: “Of course not!“”
Sadar Bazaar, Agra: street food.
Day 3: Varanasi
Sipping chai tea on a terrace overlooking the Ganges River on a warm night in Varanasi, I hear drums and never-ending mantras coming from the cremation ghats not too far away. The full moon illuminates the water, completing the scene. And I believe that the bracelet that holy man gave me earlier in the afternoon will stick around my right wrist for a while.
Day 4: on the Marudhar Express
How many people can fit on a train? How many people can fit on an Indian train? Hint: Take your first answer, multiply it by 20, and you may get close to the answer to the second question (but you are probably still short a few hundred people). Crazy stuff.
Day 5: Jaipur
A green and yellow rickshaw leaves the Pink City at dusk to start its climb up towards Nahargarh Fort, slaloming in and out of camels, dogs, goats, donkeys, chickens, horses, pigs, peacocks, monkeys, and, goes without saying, cows. I could bet that Jaipur has been painted by Chagall
Day 6 and 7: Pushkar
Five hundred white temples ringing the lake turn blue while the sky goes pink this dusk in the holy city of Pushkar. Sitting on the ghats, I realize I haven’t been so relaxed in ages. Familiar mantra rhythms, priests doing their usual rituals by the water, a defined scent of incense, cows moving slowly, and not even a hint of traffic. Peace. Maybe it is really a holy place. Or maybe it’s just this “special lassi” kicking…
Day 8: Bikaner
Leaving the main street behind, the old city is a labyrinthine maze of narrow, dark, tiny streets populated by thousands of goats. A stone’s throw away from a majestic red and blue haveli, a bunch of men are sitting in a sort of open basement transformed into a pretty basic tea room, drinking chai tea boiled in extremely precarious conditions. While I am making my way through the muddy pavement, I realize that everyone is looking at me but, for the first time since I arrived in India, with no intention of selling me anything. Actually I haven’t seen a single tourist since I have arrived. It feels good.
Day 9: Gypsy Restaurant, Jodphur
A while ago, I got an email from a friend saying, “For dinner, there is only Gypsy: the best restaurant in Jodhpur and maybe in the whole of India…“
And here I am. The location itself is not particularly inspiring: set on a pretty busy road, a good 30-minute rickshaw drive from my guest house. Downstairs, Gypsy is an Indian snacks fast food place; upstairs, a thali-only restaurant where I found myself being the only customer. While downing my plain lassi, I have a look around: on the brown, sober 70s-80s style furniture, a red illuminated sign stands out: “Please don’t waste food”. Gotcha.
After about 10 minutes, the food arrives. When I see an army of nine waiters entering the dining room lined up in succession to pour into my thali one after the other: paratha, churma, chapati, puri, chutneys, dal, papad… I can’t help but play in my mind Piero Piccioni’s “Marcia di Esculapio“. Twenty-nine different items are rapidly forming an abstract composition in front of my eyes. The waiters move around perfectly synchronized refilling my katoris two or three times till I realize the meaning of the expression “bottomless refill”.
“Please don’t waste food”. Gotcha.
Day 10: Jodphur
A thunderstorm followed by a rainbow over the eastern fringe of the Thar Desert. The picturesque blue walls go even bluer under this refreshing rain. “Planet Jodhpur is blue. And there’s nothing I can do“.
(Bowie feat. me)
Day 11: Jaisalmer
I can swear it was sunny and damn hot until a couple of hours ago. Now, a massive storm is hitting the golden city of Jaisalmer. Lightning, thunder, and strong winds are raising a tsunami of sand just a couple of miles from the old city walls, where the Thar Desert begins. And I am having the hottest veg curry of my life.
Day 12: somewhere on a derelict highway in western Rajasthan
While there is pretty much a desert landscape on both sides of the road, in the first 30 minutes spent on this bus, I saw: all sorts of vehicles overtaking other vehicles randomly on the right, left, and middle lanes. A heavy truck making a U-turn to proceed in the opposite (wrong) direction. A couple of cows candidly sitting in the middle of the road. A herd of camels walking on the fast lane. A number of motorbikes running with four passengers each. Pedestrians, rickshaws, and handcarts crossing the highway. Everyone honking at everyone.
Luckily, it is only a 12-hour bus ride to Udaipur #help
Day 13: Udaipur, Jagat Niwas Palace
Dinner at sunset in a seventeenth-century haveli right on the lakeside with a stunning view over the Lake Palace. Spotless waiters, Maharaja portraits, a red tablecloth, marble floors, arched sofa-windows, white carved walls, and a cluster of rooms situated around a large three-floor bright courtyard. I expect Phileas Fogg and Passepartout to pop in any time
Day 14: Udaipur, train station
Rajasthan railway stations at night are noisy, crowded, sometimes dark, and always confusing. But they are surprisingly safe and welcoming. They are a tiny representation of the whole country, hosting a tremendous range of humanity as soon as the sun goes down. From the poor to the poorest. From families to holy men. Travelling salesmen. Homeless. Kids – they all come here. Kids are the best: they stand in front of you with their mouths open as if you were an alien landed from a planet far away. Just try to say “hello”: they will present you with the most sincere smile you have ever seen. Indian train stations are sacred places.
Day 15: Mumbai, Eros Cinema
Everyone is happy – music break – until everything goes wrong – music break. When it seems everything is going to get sorted – music break – everyone gets angry – music break. Happy end. I haven’t understood a single word, but I could easily be a screenwriter in India.
Planning a trip by train in India
I started doing my research a few months before the trip, talking to some Indian friends, reading and watching videos online. Since I had a clear itinerary in mind, I decided to book all my train tickets in advance, from London. I did it through an agency called S.D.Enterprises Ltd (SDEL) that at that time was selling Indrail passes (now sadly discontinued by the Indian Railways). The cost for an Indrail pass at that time was £128 ($155). The bus from Jaisalmer to Udaipur was booked via the guesthouse where I stayed in Jaisalmer and cost 550 Indian Rupees ($6.60). Eventually, I took a diversion from my original itinerary to visit Pushkar, which I reached via a three-hour drive organized by the hotel in Jaipur (I can’t remember the cost, but it was insignificant). Also, all my accommodation except the one in Pushkar was booked in advance. Lastly, before leaving, I bought a Rajasthan Rough Guide (#ad).
Is traveling by train in India an experience worth doing?
Short answer: yes. I think traveling by train in India is an incredible experience and one of my favorite travel memory of all times. Indian trains and train stations are a world apart, an experience unlike any other country I’ve been to. From the hypnotic sound of chai tea vendors singing their mantric “chai, chai, chai…” while trying to make their way through the narrow aisles of the trains, to the multitude of travelers waiting, living, swarming in crowded beyond belief train stations, traveling by train in India is a completely different and, ironically giving the amount of people, almost intimate way to experience India.
That said, make sure you have your own seat or better your own pre booked bunk bed before jumping on a train. Indian trains might get very, very crowded and you might end up uncomfortably standing in a packed carriage for hours. Also, long distance trains mean “very” long distance! You might end up staying on a train for 20+ hours, so make sure you have a bunk bed booked, possibly in the best available class (sleeper): my favorite bunk beds were the ones at the bottom situated in the aisle where you get more privacy and a window all for yourself.
I have extensively traveled by train in India and I never had any safety issues, neither traveling in Rajasthan nor in the other two trips from Mumbai to Kerala and from Kerala to Kolkata. Each time I traveled solo, both in sleeper or second class, and although sometimes I was uncomfortable, I didn’t feel unsafe, not even once. As bad as it sounds, I would not recommend traveling solo by train in India to a woman. That’s probably a tad too dangerous but, in case make sure to have sleeper class tickets.
My itinerary on a trip by train in Northern India
I backpacked, jumping from train to train in India, for 15 days. This was the itinerary of my trip by train in India, moving between Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra:
- Delhi. I got to Delhi pretty early in the morning via a flight from London Heathrow. While there I visited Old Delhi, including the Red Fort (Lal Qila), the Jama Masjid of Delhi, one of the largest mosques in India, the Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest and busiest markets in Old Delhi, and The India Gate. I had a quick bite at Haldiram’s (6 Hanuman Road, New Delhi) while strolling around Connaught Place and a spicy dinner at Alfa Spice (Rajendra Place, New Delhi).
- Agra. I took the 10:20 a.m. Jhelum Express to Agra Cantt. In Agra, I visited the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. I had some street food in the city center before taking a taxi to Tundla, where the next train was departing from. I spent my first night on a train.
- Varanasi: The first long-distance overnight train was the 11:10 p.m. Magadh Express from Tundla to Mughalsarai. Nine hours later, I was in Varanasi, where I spent one day sightseeing, including an early morning three-hour boat ride on the Ganges river to see the sunrise.
- Jaipur: From Varanasi, I took the 5:20 p.m. Marudhar Express to Jaipur, where I arrived by 11:30 a.m. the following day. A whopping 18-hour journey. I was meant to stay two nights in Jaipur, but I changed my mind last minute and stayed only one.
- Pushkar: Pushkar initially was not part of my itinerary, but I decided to make an impromptu change to the plan. A driver from the guesthouse took me there in about three hours. I spent the day strolling around the lake and I had a quick bite at Ganga Laffa & Falafel Restaurant (Main Market Rd, near Narsingh Ghat, Pushkar), where I tried a “special” lassi (aka bhang lassi, an edible preparation made from leaves of cannabis).
- Bikaner: From Pushkar to Bikaner, I took a four-hour bus drive. In Bikaner, I visited the Junagarh Fort and had lunch at the Garden Cafe (Ratan Bihari Park, KEM Rd, Bikaner), a beautiful place where I remember having an exceptional saffron lassi. I didn’t go to one of Bikaner’s main attractions, the Karni Mata temple aka the temple of the rats, because, well, I really didn’t think I needed that experience in my life.
- Jodhpur: After six hours on the KLK JU Express, I arrived in Jodhpur, known as “The Blue City” because all of the buildings in the oldest district are painted in an iconic shade of blue. Here, I had one of the biggest dinners of my life at Gypsy Restaurant (P No, 689, 9th C Rd, Sardarpura, Jodhpur)
- Jaisalmer: The JU JSLM Express, a six-hour night train leaving at 11:45 p.m., got me to Jaisalmer at 5:30 a.m., right before sunrise. I took a break from the daily rail traveling and stayed two days, strolling around the beautiful sandy-yellow-colored streets of the “Golden City of India”. Light meals at Little Tibet Restaurant (inside Fort Road, near Queen’s Palace) and Free Tibet (Fort Rd, Khejer Para, Manak Chowk) helped me cope with the unbearable heat.
- Udaipur: There are no trains from Jaisalmer to Udaipur, so I took a 12-hour night bus leaving in the afternoon from Jaisalmer. Once in Udaipur, I visited the City Palace Museum and Lake Pichola. I was in Udaipur, the White City, only one night and I had dinner at the hotel restaurant situated in a beautiful early 17th-century haveli overlooking the lake.
- Mumbai: The last train of my journey was the UDZ BOTS Express that got me to Mumbai in the afternoon, after another never-ending 17-hour monster ride. Entering Mumbai, the train went through a number of incredibly poor slums, heart-breaking reminders of the problems this magical country is facing. After checking in at the hotel, I spent the afternoon trying – and failing – to understand what was happening in a cricket match at the Oval Maidan, before ending the trip watching a Bollywood movie in a movie theatre: a mind-blowing experience where it seemed the movie was nothing but an excuse to get together. Just brilliant.
Accommodation when backpacking in Northern India
Here a list of all the accommodation I stayed during my trip by train in Northern India. A few nights in between were spend sleeping on long distance night trains:
- Delhi: Hotel Bonlon Inn, Plot No. 7A-39, W.E.A, Channa Market, Delhi, 110005, India
- Agra: I got to Agra early in the afternoon, went to Taj Mahal, had a quick tour of the city but I didn’t stay overnight.
- Varanasi: Hotel Ganges View, Assi ghat, Shivala, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221005, India
- Jaipur, Hotel Kalyan, Hathroi Fort, Ajmer Rd, Hathroi, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302001, India
- Pushkar, Kanhaiya Haveli, Choti Basti, near Mali Mandir, Pushkar, Rajasthan 305022, India
- Bikaner, Vinayak Guest House, Near Matagi Temple, Old Ginani, Mehron Ka Bas, near Junagarh Fort, Bikaner, 334001, India
- Jodhpur: Castle View Home Stay, Rawhtoh, Gundi ka Mohalla, Navchokiya, Sodagaran Mohalla, Jodhpur, Rajasthan 342001, India
- Jaisalmer: Hotel The Surya Jaisalmer, Kotri Para Inside fort, near maharani place, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India
- Udaipur, Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel, 23-25, Lal Ghat, Behind Jagdish Temple, Udaipur, Rajasthan 313001, India
- Mumbai: Chateau Windsor Hotel, 86, Veer Nariman Rd, Churchgate, Mumbai, Maharashtra 400020, India