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High 5: Iconic rail journeys in India

Photographer: Krishna Prabakar


Train journeys are coming into their own as experiences in themselves. We’ve put together a list of iconic rail journeys across India that will set you on right track.

  1. The Deccan Odyssey

Anyone who’s ever travelled on an Indian train is probably familiar with the following: often-smelly compartments, food vendors selling everything from masala chai to sandwees, that all-pervading smell of iron that gets into your clothes and never seems to wash off your hands. But, what if we told you there was a different way to do it? That you could spend a week on a train where you were made to feel very special? Cue the Deccan Odyssey, an indulgent hotel on wheels, inspired by India’s first-ever luxury train, the Palace on Wheels.

The experience begins right from the get-go, as you walk the red carpet to your private compartment, welcomed by traditional dancers at Mumbai’s CST Station. The train, all metal and shiny paint, gleams in the sunlight. As you climb aboard, you’re ushered to your room, a plush cabin with panoramic windows, an en suite bathroom (that’s right, no smelly shared loos!), wall-to-wall carpeting and your own personal butler.

Meals are had at the restaurants on board, Waavar and Utsav. The great part about food on the Deccan Odyssey is that it keeps changing, depending on where you are on your route. Each time the train stops, fresh, local ingredients are brought in and used in the dishes the pantry car serves up.

There are a number of routes to choose from, each one taking you through different parts of the country and offering different experiences along the way.There’s the Maharashtra Splendour that goes through Nashik, Ajanta and Ellora, Kolhapur, Goa and on to Ratnagiri before heading back to Mumbai. Explore India’s foremost wine region, gawk at the magnificent caves at Ajanta and Ellora and bask in the colonial grandeur of Goa along the way. If you’re planning a trip around New Year’s Eve, the newly-introduced route to Goa, Susegado, is a great way to get the party started. Bring in the New Year with a stroll along the beach, a spot of shopping, a sip (or many more) of wine and some dancing at one of Goa’s iconic New Year’s parties. When you’re ready to turn in for the night, make your way back to your luxurious cabin, where the lights have been dimmed for your comfort and where your helpful butler has already turned down your bed for you.

2. Kalka-Shimla Toy Train

Spending hours and hours on a regular train isn’t always everyone’s idea of a great way to travel. Still, a train journey does have a charm of its own – the loud honking of the horn, the shrill whistle every time it pulls out of a station, the rhythmic clackety-clack of the wheels running over the tracks that can lull you into a deep stupor. A happy compromise if you’re hesitant to get on a long-haul train but want to climb aboard for simple pleasures of a rail journey presents itself in the form of toy trains. Smaller than your regular choo-choos, toy trains often ply difficult routes, and are most well known in India’s hilly areas. Foremost among them is the Kalka-Shimla Toy Train.

Built more than a hundred years ago in 1898, the Kalka-Shimla railway line was constructed at a time when the British were still hanging about the country. It was built to connect Shimla, the summer capital of the British Empire, to the rest of India’s rail system. Today, the railway line holds UNESCO World Heritage status and takes you through Himachali villages such as Dharampur, Solan, Kandaghat and Barog.

Winding its way up the hills, the train ride is famed for its dramatic views over Himachal’s pine- and fir-covered hilltops, and has a distinct Chaiyya chaiyya feel to it. Chances are you’ll be humming the tune before the ride is up, trying to climb up onto the roof of the compartment to shake a leg.

The journey, which lasts about five hours, begins at the small station of Kalka at the foothills of the Shivalik mountain ranges. There are five toy trains to choose from, each departing at different times, some as early as 4am. As the train climbs up the mountains, it chugs through more than a hundred tunnels, the longest of which will leave you in pitch darkness for a whole three minutes.

The KSR, as it is fondly known, has had its share of time in the limelight. In 2010, it was featured in a documentary made by the BBC on India’s hill railways, and later made a brief appearance in an episode of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

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