India by train

In an average day, about 23 million people ride on Indian Railways, the fourth-largest railway system in the world. This is about the same as the entire population of Australia!

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Victoria Railway Station, Mumbai.

We took a lot of trains during our four-plus weeks in India; it’s a big country. We rode on sleepers and day trains and subways and coal-fired trains from the 1800s. Like our experience on trains in Vietnam, we believe this is one of the best ways to see a place. From big cities to tiny villages to rural agriculture, we loved experiencing India this way.

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It’s common to see dozens of people sleeping in the train stations.

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A metro station in Delhi.

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Keep your wits about you; the crowds are intense.

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A six-berth sleeper carriage.

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The locomotive of Darjeeling’s “toy train.”

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A carriage of the toy train.

One of the primary tourist attractions in Darjeeling – in addition to tea plantations – is the “toy train,” a narrow-gauge railroad built by the British in the late 1800s that runs for about 78 kilometers through West Bengal. The train was revolutionary when it was first constructed, since it both traveled at altitude (Darjeeling is at about 7,000 feet) and navigated treacherously steep mountainsides.

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Emptying spent coal from the train’s furnace.

Nowadays it’s rather quaint (and slow), with piercingly loud horns and clouds of pollution from the coal, but it remains one of Darjeeling’s most popular tourist attractions.

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Despite its crowded cities, much of India is still almost entirely agricultural; this was often the view from the trains.

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It was always a little disconcerting for our group of Westerners to conspicuously walk into a lounge labeled as “upper class.”

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Chaiwallahs offer hot, sweet tea throughout the train carriages.

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I’m not sure what the plan is if the hammer isn’t there.

Just like everything else in India, the trains are hot, crowded and noisy, but they’re a quintessentially Indian experience. Can you travel India more efficiently? Of course. But the greatest gift the trains offer is time; they force travelers to slow down and experience a country at its own pace. We’re so glad we saw India by train.

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