India's massive rail network is a wonderful way to get around and see the country. Indian Railways is the largest employer in the world, and runs the third biggest rail network after Russia and China. The train journeys aren't merely transportation, they become an integral part of your trip. In many ways I don't think you've had the full India experience until you've negotiated bustling Indian railway stations and ridden long-distance on an Indian train, complete with the chai wallah coming down the aisle singing "Chai, chai, garam chai" and dispensing cups of addictive hot sweet tea.
You can forget those images of overcrowded commuter trains with passengers hanging on the side or sitting on the roof. You'll be travelling on long-distance trains with your seats safely reserved for you, with air-conditioning and reasonably comfortable leatherette sleeping berths at night equipped with clean sheets and pillows.
Indian trains have a bewildering array of classes, eight types no less, but 2AC (AC two-tier) is arguably the 'norm' for most western visitors. It has air-conditioned seating in open bays of four on one side of the aisle, bays of two on the other. At night, the seats convert to sleeping berths, bedding is provided and curtains give a degree of privacy. 2AC is the way the Indian middle classes travel, and you'll meet many Indian families on board.
Delhi to Varanasi costs about £17 in AC2, and with the best train, the overnight 'Shiv Ganga Express' (Holy Ganges Express) leaving New Delhi at 18:45 and arriving in Varanasi at 07:30, it's time-effective and saves a hotel bill too.
1AC (air-conditioned first class) is available on the best trains, and consists of lockable two-berth and four-berth sleeper compartments. In 1AC you'll be mixing with army officers and bank managers. A berth on the Shiv Ganga Express costs about £28 in 1AC. For short distances such as Delhi to Agra, Air-Conditioned Chair Car offers open-plan seating and is a good choice, especially on the fast premium-fare 'Shatabdi Express' trains.
To check Indian train times or fares, or to buy Indian train tickets online, I suggest www.cleartrip.com. This is a private booking site, as Indian Railways' own sales site (www.irctc.co.in) now insists on an Indian mobile phone number as part of the registration process so cannot be used by visitors. And unlike some sites, cleartrip.com accepts non-Indian credit cards.
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