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I went on an incredible sleeper train journey for £19 – but there's a catch


Sometimes, it’s just as much about the journey as it is the destination (Credits: Getty/iStockphoto)

‘You’ve lost your mind,’ said people at my Ayurvedic retreat in Kerala when I told them I was travelling solo by train for so long.

‘Why come all this way to relax 
and then ruin it all by taking the cheapest ticket on the slowest train? It’s only two hours to fly – and it’s hardly any more money.’

Yes, my internal flight from Mumbai to Kerala a week earlier cost about £40. But this wasn’t anything to do with money – it was everything to do with wanting to immerse myself in India and extract the most of being in this mesmerising country.

As Japan’s Shinkansen marks its 60th birthday and India starts building its first bullet train, I celebrated my solo-travel, 27-hour, sleeper-train journey from Kerala to Mumbai.

Travelling third-class

Waiting to board the hilariously misnomered Kochuveli Superfast Express for its 1am departure from Thiruvananthapuram, I saw no other white travellers – and no lone females.

Some people warned me against solo travel as a woman in India but I never felt unsafe on my stay.

First-class rail was sold out, so here I stood with my ticket for a bunk in what was still available – Third Class (3A) – having paid the laughably small sum of £19 to travel the 1,126 miles from nearly the southern tip of India through four states to the country’s largest city by population.

The Superfast Express was 27 hours (Picture: supplied)

I was so glad I missed out on first class, and even second. Sure, 3A – which most Indians choose – is far from the apex of luxury. Each non-partitioned section of the carriage has eight fold-down berths, and there are no curtains for privacy and no gender segregation, but there is air-conditioning. If you’re open to this, you may well be rewarded with 
a convivial atmosphere and come away with new friends and perhaps
a different perspective on life.

I can’t deny the first night was sleep-lite as we rattled our way up the long, thin state of Kerala, stopping at 13 stations before we even got to the next state of Karnataka.

Passengers bustled on and off at each stop, but there was such a fascinating array of them – from a sports team of teenage boys to a couple with a roaming toddler – that I didn’t mind at all.

It’s not luxury but there is air conditioning (Picture: supplied)
Seeing such a view from my train window, I felt so blessed, I almost pinched myself (Credits: Getty)

A bunk with a view

When I finally woke for good, it was to the surreal sight of an ant-like human figure wading across a river as a fat orange sun rose behind him; and to views of farmers leading buffaloes across marshland, wild peacocks strutting around and egrets standing as impassively as statues. I felt so blessed, I almost pinched myself.

Being tired didn’t matter a jot, because I could nap whenever I wanted. And the rest of 
the journey was quiet, as fellow passengers dozed in their bunks.

From here until Mumbai, I shared my area on the train with two girls in their late teens and a young man who introduced himself as Sangeena and was returning with his mother and grandmother from a wedding in Kerala.

He translated for me so I could chat to his two relatives. Despite not being well-off – they live in a Mumbai hostel – the three insisted on sharing jackfruit chips and other spicy snacks with me.

You’ll never go hungry

Sangeena helped me hop off the train at stations to buy meals on platforms. Few food sellers spoke any English, but my new friend helped me understand and find the correct money in the few minutes before we had to leap back on the train.

A dabbawala with food for sale in Mumbai (Credits: Getty)
Sangeena wrote me directions to my next destination (Picture: supplied)

There was no danger of being hungry on the journey because, as well as the station vendors, food sellers climbed aboard to ply their wares from carriage to carriage.

Tasty biryanis, steaming garam tomato soup and crispy bhaji rolls, to name just a few of the tempting options – plus endless cups of steaming sweet chai.

Tea cost less than 10p a cup while curries as tasty as those you get in 
a restaurant were as little as 50p. If you’re organised, you can order food via apps – and there’s catering in the more expensive carriages.

Taking it slow

Travelling by slow train was perfect for my state of mind, and even though delays added two hours, I could have stayed for another 27 – or more. It was hypnotic and addictive.

I napped, read a bit and wrote in my notebook. I occasionally switched on my data to pick up messages (there’s no wi-fi on these trains). But mainly I simply gazed out of the window at the lush landscapes and took advantage of a rare opportunity to switch off and be unavailable.

The train terminated one stop short of its final destination for technical reasons, dropping us off at a station on the outskirts of Mumbai – at which point the lovely Sangeena wrote me directions on how to get where I needed to go using local trains.

Travelling by train in India is magical and humbling – and something to be savoured and drawn out (Picture: Getty)
The women’s only train carriage in Mumbai (Picture: Owner supplied)

Travelling in a female-only carriage

This turned out to be another felicitous occurrence, as I got to travel on one of India’s female-only carriages alongside scores of sleepy women making their way into Mumbai at 5am to sell baskets of food they’d got up even earlier to cook.

Once again, a few were kind enough to check I knew where I was going and which stop to get off at.

Travelling by train in India is magical and humbling – and something to be savoured and drawn out. And that’s why, even as the country begins building its first bullet train and expands its newish Vande Bharat network of ‘semi-high speed’ trains, I’ll always insist on taking the slow route.



Getting there

Rhonda bought train tickets from 12go.asia/en, a reliable operator for booking rail, buses, ferries, transfers and flights in Asia
(it’s not possible
to book advance tickets from the UK directly with Indian Railways).

  • Man In Seat 61 is a great source of practical info on travelling by train in India.
  • In Kerala, Rhonda stayed at Somatheeram Ayurvedic Health Resort. In Mumbai, she toured the city with Intrepid Travel, with whom she got an overview of the Dhobi Ghat open-air laundry and the Dharavi slum, and visited sights including the Mani Bhavan museum and historic building dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi.


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