Indian Train Travel

There were, there still are, a whole heap of posts I want to write about the minutiae of our 2011 RTW, but of them all, Indian train travel sits right atop the pile.  Sadly life’s tracks tend to keep itinerant minds metaphorically forward facing on steely rails, but with the knowledge of a return trip to mother India comes a renewed enthusiasm to finish a post that’s seen more starts and stops than the most ‘stoppy’ of Indian train routes.  The previous sentence had “a return trip to mother India next month”, and then “in two weeks” and now we’re in Dubai airport with India just a matter of hours away, so without further prevarication, it’s all aboard please, as this post is about to depart…

All Aboard!

Before we leave let me first make clear that my locomotive leanings come not from any prior tendency to ‘spot’, but from the fact that travelling by train in India is just such a fantastic experience, neatly encapsulating everything we’ve found both mind bending and buttock clenching about the whole Indian experience.

The practical reasons for travelling by train in India are straight forward.  It’s claimed the greatest legacy of the British Raj was the rail network it left behind, and in terms of coverage there are very few areas of the country that its tentacles fail to reach.  As such the trains, used by over 20 million people daily, serve as the primary means of transport for the nation, and offer visitors choosing to join the masses the opportunity to connect to the country and its people like nothing else.

It is also ridiculously good value…many things in India are cheap for the foreign tourist, but train travel spectacularly so.  Our most expensive journey in 2011, first class in private, air-conditioned cabin  from the deserts of Jaisalmer to the chaos of Delhi20 hours and 900 km’s apart, cost less than £30.  The 40-odd hours of train travel that we have booked for our current trip totted up to under a hundred quid.  Take that British Rail.

But what makes travelling by railway in India such an unmissable experience, is less the practicality or cost, and more the heady combination of sights, smells, sounds and tastes offered up to the casual commuter, the experiential equivalent of the golden pakoras served in squares of Hindi-print paper at platforms up and down the country. 

Station-side Pakora & Samosa in print

Owing to unfavourable schedules or unavoidable delays, one of the great things about travelling by train in India (in my opinion at least) is the opportunity to see a side of India well away from rush-hour clamour and tourist scrum, best observed at obscure times of day or night.  Apart from a few dark, solitary hours in the very early morning, India invariably has something or someone of interest around the corner, sometimes snoozing under a heavy blanket but always ready to stir at the sound of shuffling, backpack-laden feet.

Although painful in prospect, my personal favourite are super-early morning departures, when with dawn still a twinkle in her night-father’s eye you slip out of the hotel to roam in search of rickshaws, drifting past dark figures huddled around acrid smoky fires of twigs and rubber, which sting eyes but warm shins.  Squinting through patches of cool 4am mist you’ll find a waiting rickshaw, where after a sleepy headed haggle you’ll be station bound, zigzagging between potholes and raggedy-breath’d men pushing hand-carts piled high with scavenged plastic bottles.  Cracking start to the day!

The tempo gets upped as you near the station, particularly in cities where the action continues right around the clock. They’re usually surrounded by satellite rings of rickshaws, taxi’s, and buses, whose  respective owners all try to hustle you on board.  Once reached, Station entrance hall’s are seldom less shambolic or overrun than their exterior, often featuring industrial looking luggage scanning machines (usually ignored) and multiple ‘queues’, each with its own scrum of pushers-in, flattened cheeks and raised voices leaving greasy, spittle flecked streaks on the glass.  But provided you’ve pre-booked your ticket (I recommend the excellent Cleartrip rather than the impenetrable government website), this is all just japes, there to be enjoyed as you pick your way through sprawling bodies of people and animals which lie scattered across entrance hall and platform alike.

One at a time please, wait your tur..oh, ok then.

And now you’re at the heart of things, where the endless to-ings and fro-ings of people and animals offer fascinating viewing for those with time to observe.  Which is lucky, because time to observe you most certainly will have.  To be fair, of the many trains we caught, the majority departed within an hour of their allotted time, and only a couple passed the ‘5 hours delayed’ mark.  We did however hear one announcement stating “the so-and-so from somewhere-to-somewhere-else is running approximately thirty-four hours late…we do sincerely apologise for any inconvenience”.  Inconvenience?!  Superbly understated.  And while that was certainly the most extreme case of inconvenience encountered, it was usual to offer a ‘thank God that’s not ours’ as we surveyed retro style arrival or departure boards where 12+ hour delayed trains flick-flacked across the display.

But with so much going on to keep you entertained, it seems churlish to complain.  There are none of your sterile, grey, eyes-to-the-ground passive-aggressive overtones typical of British railways in India.  No Sir.  Indian train stations are buzzing hives of activity.  I’ve mentioned the sprawling crowds in passing, but to elaborate, this is sprawling with real intent…families resting at ease, reclining across piled luggage and blankets, cracking open silvery tiffin boxes of curry and crispy fried snacks to keep the wolves at bay while waiting to pile in to the ‘may-never-turn-up’ to ‘who-know’s-where’.

Down on the tracks there are frequently as many people as on the platform.  Men and women, old and young, all scrambling down, hopping across, and heaving themselves up the other side with help from a friendly hand and a handily positioned half breeze-block.  It’s not that there aren’t bridges, it’s just seems that the masses prefer to roll ‘as the crow flies’.  And why the hell not.

One particularly memorable piece of station entertainment was served up while waiting for the 5 hour delayed 05.10 from Agra to Jaipur.  Heating chilled cores with tiny paper cups of super sweet chai as the sun rose, we watched  the hubbub of stall holders, pakora sellers, beggars, passengers, spitters, and smokers bumping and jostling around us.  High above the melee a resident troupe of monkeys scampered across the station roof, pausing to survey the crowd below, then sliding down pipes to platform level to quick-as-a-flash swipe a momentarily unguarded picnic.  Brilliant.  Certainly beat watching pigeons peck Cornish Pasty flakes from platform 11 at Kings Cross let me tell you.

And so to the train itself as, well over 1,000 words deep, it finally rolls into platform three…I hope you’ve got far enough through to join us on board.  Scrambling on you pass the toilets on the way in (as if you couldn’t smell them ten feet away) so we may as well deal with the down-side first, they’re horrible.  They’re horrible at the first stop of the journey, an empty train ‘fresh’ to work, and trust me they only go down hill from there.  Get in early and get out quick is my advice, and for those looking to avoid squatting over a hole in a swaying cubicle where you’ll desperately try to avoid dabbing a supporting hand on the floor (or wall for that matter), try the other end of the carriage as there’s usually a western style sit-on alternative for the less squat-sure.

The sanitary situation covered, it’s back to the the good stuff.  As mentioned right at the start, train travel really does connect you to the country and its people like nothing else.  In most classes you share your seating / sleeping area with a random and (depending on journey length) rotating selection of locals and fellow travellers.  This gives you the chance to share questions, stories (and usually snacks) with the locals, and to pick up hints, tips, and must see’s from an internationally diverse bunch of travellers.  If you travel sleeper class (as we did most of the time) your carriage partners will be predominantly local, which is fantastic as it means you can watch the spectacle of squeezing of more individuals than you’d think possible onto a lower bunk (personal space it appears is overrated), the sharing of bags of crispy goodies, the endless rounds of chai, and the casual throwing of anything and everything out of train windows.

Gazing out of the windows (or even better the open doors at the end of the carriage) is of course the jewel in the crown of train travel, where as choked towns with track side shanty style shacks transition to suburbs, then fields and forests, belching power stations, deserts, villages, and beautiful sunsets, emotions will run from appalled to amazed and everywhere in between.

I can’t wait…

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3 Responses to Indian Train Travel

  1. Dan says:

    I don’t think there’s a word in the English language to describe my jealousy….

    Anywho, you remind me of an occasion in one of the Calcutta stations (Howrah I think? Either way, Calcutta + train station = not pretty), when, several hours into a lengthy delay, a young Indian family set up camp next to us. After a few minutes, the wife/mother picked up the toddler, stripped him naked and held him at arms’ length from the camp, allowing him to relieve himself (both 1 and 2) onto the floor. To our surprise, no effort was made by the family to clear the mess up. Instead, about half an hour passed before a young boy appeared, identifiable as a member of staff by his faded and dirty burgundy uniform and flip flops, holding a traditional Indian “broom” (bunch of twigs tied to the end of a stick). Next, without a bucket of water in sight (let alone cleaning products), he proceeded to smear the mess around Howrah train station with the aforementioned (and entirely ineffective) cleaning device, while we looked on in amazement….luckily, our pale skin was enough to earn us complimentary access to the “executive lounge”… beyond belief, as I’m sure you can imagine ;o)

    Enjoy 🙂

    • Richard says:

      Ha ha! Sorry mate…I can’t lie, it’s great to be back. Thankfully no tales of personal relief quite as horrific as that, but it is only day one! Would be great to see you guys on Sunday 2nd if you’re around? A monkey has (as I type this) just walked by on the guesthouse terrace and showed me its bottom. Happy days.

  2. Louise says:

    It’s been a long wait (!), but worth it to get the very entertaining and interesting Indian Train Travel blog. So glad you didn’t fall at the first hurdle of your current trip by failing to get to Heathrow in time for your flight. Anyway enjoy South India and post more blogs soon.

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