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Journey on the Indian Railways
Disposable underwear, tiffin boxes and a brass band - just what you need to survive two weeks on trains. At least this is the wisdom of a motley crew of 19 rail-fans and adventurers from around the world who are currently on a circular journey on the Indian railways.
The group of Brits, Aussies, Americans, a Bulgarian and an Indian has already spent a week squeezed into their little blue berths, scoffing countless train-served cutlet sandwiches and rocking side-to-side like a see-saw day and night. And they still have another week to go. One has already had to abort mission due to a serious bout of Delhi belly, and for others whose lanky European frames don't quite fit into a train berth, it's going to be a long journey. "Sleep deprivation is very likely, there's a strong chance someone will get seriously ill at some stage and personalities could clash, " says trip mastermind Mark Lester. "But I'm fairly confident we can keep everyone on board. "
The group's mission is to touch all four corners of the railway service, conflict in Assam and Jammu permitting, making a full circle of the railway lines. They are stopping only for "splash and dash" or "rapid nosh stops", (" depending on whether your arm pits or stomach were more worthy of attention" says Lester). They'll also have a short stop in Darjeeling to re-acquaint themselves with solid ground and have a break from being woken throughout the night by the chant of "bonniewatahlasseeechickehlolipop".
When they turned up at Mumbai Central to board their first train to Dwarka, most of the group had only met for the first time that day. But once they'd slung on their matching T-shirts, danced together to a uniformed brass band Lester had hired to set them on their way (before it was chased away by the police), they were already looking like a team.
The plan was dreamt up by Lester, a computer programmer from Oldham and fan of the Indian railways who thought it might be fun to see all four corners. "Originally I thought I'd find some mad German to do the challenge with me - I'd go clockwise, they'd go anti-clockwise - you always find mad Germans on Indian trains. " But when Lester posted details of his scheme on around 50 travelling and trainspotting websites, there was huge response. Over the following months the number dwindled, leaving a small but determined bunch aged between their early 20s and mid-60 s.
Many admit they are probably a little crazy and their families and friends certainly have their reservations. For some, the logic behind the round trip is no more than their love of Indian trains. There are a number of rail-fans on the expedition, ranging from those who enjoy observing life on the railways to those who are at their happiest planning a complex itinerary.
There's Mick Pope, a soon to retire social worker from near Liverpool, described by Lester as "archdeacon of the world of steam observance. " Pope has spent the last 30 years chronicling the demise of the steam train. He explains his motivation: "I'm getting older and this is an opportunity to do something adventurous while I'm able to. I will remember this in future years as a significant event and achievement. "
Then there's Steve Logan, who already has 50, 000 km of railways under his belt and whom Lester describes as the chap with a "spectacular knowledge of the labyrinth of bureaucracy that is the Indian railways". Steve often helps people on the 'India Mike' travel forum to plan itineraries and says with confidence, "I have enough experience that if things go wrong I can probably put them right. "
For Lester, his reason for putting himself forward for two weeks of train-served masala omelettes is "the response that (English explorer) Sir Ranulph Fiennes gives: 'because it's there'. " He and many others in the group are also raising money through sponsorship for Railway Children, a charity that provides relief to young people who are in need. Lester has spent the last 18 months using a computer programme he designed especially for the purpose of tracking the arrival times of every train they plan to take.
When the trip was first advertised, it received a lot of interest from Indians - at one point 80 joined up on the Facebook page. But as it got closer to the trip, all except one dropped out. Lester surmises: "It's harder for an Indian than a Westerner to get two weeks of holiday and to take them without seeing family. Also rail passes are not available to Indian citizens, which mean they'd have to book each journey separately. "
Accompanying the majority contingent of middle-aged male Britishers is a group of girls in their early 20s, none of whom have met before, whom Lester describes as "the youngies".
Usha Amudan, 23, who lives in Singapore and studies in China, has never been on an Indian train before, and finds the prospect "very exciting". "I have grandparents in South India, " she says, "but normally when I visit them I go by air. Most people on the trip seem quite old, but that shouldn't be a problem. "
Emily Buress, another 'youngie' from North Carolina says deciding to join the trip was a "no brainer". "It sounds like an epic adventure and a chance to see more of India in a short space of time. I love travelling in sleeper class. With the wind blowing in through the window I feel free, liberated, like anything is possible. "
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