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Discovering Train Travel in India with Monisha Rajesh

As part of the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival in 2015, Monisha Rajesh, author of Around India in 80 Trains, spoke to Adrian Phillips, MD of Bradt Guides, about her cultural journey.  Here is just a snippet of their conversation.

Adrian Phillips: What inspired you to travel around India in 80 trains and write this insightful and entertaining book?

Monisha Rajesh: I was working at TIME magazine back in 2009, editing an article on how domestic airlines had grown and that there were now flights connecting 80 different cities within India. I was born in the UK and grew up here mostly apart from a brief stint living in India in 1991 but we came back shortly afterwards. I was editing this article and was just fascinated. I pulled up a map of India and started seeing all these cities I’d never heard of before. Throughout these maps there were threads everywhere and the key below the map revealed that these were the rail networks. I was astounded by the sheer number and that’s where I got the idea to do the book and travel India on 80 trains. I wanted to explore the whole country properly anyway, not just go back to the same city we had briefly lived in previously, and it seemed like exploring the country by train was the best way. So I booked a ticket and went!

Adrian Phillips: That’s pretty brave. What were the immediate challenges? Did you plan everything in advance? There is a stereotype that the Indian railways are quite disorganised and everyone just has to cram on. How did you cope with that?

Monisha Rajesh: Well, the fun of the book is that I made all the mistakes that any other traveller would have made and hopefully if you go, you won’t make these same mistakes. I was under the impression that you could just book a ticket, turn up and go. It wasn’t. At the time, the train ticket system opened 90 days in advance! I didn’t know what I was doing the following week, let alone three months down the line. Now it is actually even longer - at 120 days. I bought an IndRail Pass which is brilliant because foreign tourists are the only people who can get them. This is a bit unfair but wonderful if you want to travel India, you can buy a ticket which is valid from just half a day all the way up to 90 days. It cost me £350 for 90 days of travel in second class and that covered my whole trip, included all my food, the sleeper trains and you didn’t need to pay any supplements. It is a truly incredible pass. It’s a bit flimsy and looks as though it was printed in the 70’s because it is like tissue paper. But it is brilliant. When you actually get to India all you need to do is make the reservation, as you’ve already paid for all your trains, so you just need to queue in a separate queue and they will find a slot for you. As you’re a tourist, they have a small allocation of two or three seats on every train for foreigners. Even if it is ten minutes before the train leaves and those seats are empty they won’t sell the tickets to locals because they are reserved exclusively for foreign tourists. So we were very lucky, once we had this ticket, we could hop on and off as we wanted to.

Find out more about Monisha’s Indian adventure in her book Around India in 80 Trains. 

Find out more about the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival here or browse our inspiring image gallery of Asia here.