A 36 Hour Train Ride

And to think… it was only supposed to take 34 hours.
Honestly, way back last year when I was thinking about where I was going to go, or where I wanted to go on this trip, India was not on the list.  Nepal yes… but India… I just didn’t have an overwhelming desire to go.  But that all changed when I was in London (my first international stop on my way to Ibiza) and my friends’ informed me that they were going to get married in India in December… so I told them that if I was in that part of the world, and that there was even a remote chance I could get there from where I was, I’d be there.  Fast forward and here I am India, post-wedding (more on that later), with no real plans or idea what I want to be doing/seeing here… and that’s open-ended even for me.  Plus, with the the holiday season coming up (or already here depending upon how you look at it), where, oh where, would I be spending those?  Now, I’d heard of Goa before… and after some quick internetting and asking around, it looked like a good as place as any to spend the holiday season. So, with the planning done (yes, that was the extent of it)… I just had to figure out the details (getting there, where to stay, etc.).

Previous to coming to India, I bought guidebook number two of this trip (the first one being for Ethiopia).  One of the things the guidebook mentioned is that India has an extensive train network, and that getting around by train is both cost-effective and a very good way to experience India.  With that idea in the back of my mind, the day after the wedding ceremony (again… planning ahead is not my strong suit), I set about figuring out a way to get myself from Delhi to Goa.  Here’s a google map of the driving route… and you’ll notice that Delhi and Goa ain’t exactly what one would refer to as “close”… or even in the same vicinity, unless you subscribe to the idea that they’re close on the scale that London is much farther away type-of-thing.  Anyhow, a plane flight leaving the next day (or the day after) was about $225.  Not bad for such a late booking and a 2 hour flight.  I went about checking the train schedules and found that about four trains a day left Delhi and went in Goa’s direction… and after some further checking into the schedule, that it took each train plus or minus 34 hours to get there… whoa…yes, 34 hours… and those are the express trains (I was definitely questioning my thoughts on train travel at that point).  Train tickets were either $12, $35, or $50, depending on the class (these were all sleeper tickets, the first being no air conditioning with 6 bunks to a room, the second being with a/c and 6 bunks to a room, and the last being with a/c and 4 bunks to a room).  I decided to split the baby and booked myself the mid-range ticket, or 3rd Class A/C in Indian train parlance (note there are also super cheap unreserved tickets for $5 that just gets you a seat… no bed… I was not mentally prepared for that, and there are also first class a/c tickets where there’s two beds to a room… not for me either).  Now, I actually paid a bit more because I ended up booking through a travel agent, and they charged me a service change for getting confirmed tickets, which I grudgingly (although, after a post-ad-hoc rationalization that grudgingly became gladly) paid because actually getting a confirmed seat on the train seems to be a very daunting task when one is not used to it (there’s a semi-complicated waiting list process for train tickets in India, and all trains seem to be overbooked at all times as the cancellation charges are minimal, so it seems Indians are in the habit of booking multiple tickets on multiple trains and cancelling all but one ticket at the last minute after deciding which one they prefer… so it’s sometimes hard to tell if you will be on a train until the night before, or the day of, departure).  I may have went ahead and tried it myself, but I got to the train station on a Sunday, and my impeccable timing working  in reverse this time, I found the reserved ticket office at 2:16 PM… exactly one minute after it had closed until 10 AM Monday morning (I stood in line for about an hour at the unreserved ticket office before being informed that the reserved ticket office was in another location outside the station… ahhh learning).  There was a train leaving to Goa at 9 AM the following day (Monday) morning that I might have been able to get on, so began asking around about tickets with travel agents near the station… only to be informed by all of them that the particular train I was interested in was sold out. However, I could get tickets on the trains the following day (Tuesday).  After asking enough travel agents to determine that this information was likely to be true, I went about getting one to get me a ticket for the Tuesday train (The Mangala Lakshadweep Express, 3rd Class A/C ticket… here’s the official train schedule…I got off at Thivim).

Looking out from one of the entrances of H. Nizamuddin train station in Delhi (and yes, those of dudes carrying things on their heads... officially referred to as coolies here)

Looking out from one of the entrances of H. Nizamuddin train station in Delhi (and yes, those of dudes carrying things on their heads… officially referred to as coolies here)

In an aside, one thing I’m finding I don’t like about India is that, when asking for something, you’re not given all the options unless you specifically inquire about them.  For example, when trying to book my train ticket (with the travel agent I finally selected), I told the guy I wanted to get to Goa as quickly as possible (on the train of course).  He said he could get me a ticket for the Tuesday 3:15 PM train… that would get me to Goa around 6 AM Thursday morning.  Okay I thought… if it’s the only train available… book it.  I had only really previously checked the train schedules for Monday, so wasn’t sure about how many, or when, trains would be leaving for Goa on the Tuesday (not all trains run on all days).  Because I had only recently arrived, I went to an internet cafe to check up on what the travel agents had told me (and also check to see if I was being royally screwed on the service charges as compared to the base fare… which I was… well maybe only gently screwed)… note, that I do this at the beginning of every new place to try and close the information gap on what things should cost as quickly as possible… so I stop getting royally ripped off when I become a bit more conscious of what prices should be.  Anyhow, I went to the nearest internet cafe to check the schedules… and sure enough the same four trains that were leaving on Monday also left on Tuesday at the same times.  I went back to the guys and asked them why they didn’t tell me about the morning trains, to which I got the standard Indian head bobble and “no problem” response that one gets when the responder doesn’t know but doesn’t want to say no either (this is very typical here as no one ever says no or I don’t know)… I told them to please check up on it (I did end up getting on the morning train after this).  Note that I had specifically said I wanted to get to Goa as quickly as possible, but, for whatever reason, they didn’t think, or care, to show me the morning train(s) for that Tuesday (which definitely arrive before the one they told me about).  C’mon guys….  I’m finding this idea of a lack of taking the extra step (i.e. if I want to go to Goa as quickly as possible, and if there’s a morning train rather than an afternoon train, that perhaps the guy would connect the dots and think I’d prefer the morning train to the afternoon train, especially as the prices are all the same) to be somewhat universal in dealings here… I don’t really know what it is (other than annoying) or why, but it definitely is a thing here (looking at hotels… do you have cheap rooms available…yes… how much are rooms… 2000 rupees… do you have a cheaper room… yes… how much is that… 1000 rupees… do you have a cheaper room… yes… how much is that 750 rupees… repeat with many things ad infinim).  Interesting, yet frustrating, cultural aside over.

The train platforms the morning I left.

The train platforms the morning I left.

My train car.

My train car.

I picked up my confirmed ticket on Monday, and showed up to the station Tuesday morning well in advance of when I’m supposed to leave (an unusual move for me yes, but given how complicated getting the ticket was, I didn’t want to take any chances of having my confirmation bumped for a wait-listed guy with a bribe or something).  As it was on my previous visit, the station is generally in a state of organized chaos… lots of people running, and sitting, around, lots of shouting, people carrying things on their heads, families with tons of bags in tow, assorted goods lines up for shipping, trains arriving and departing constantly, taxis and rickshaws all over the place, but all with a definite sense of purpose.  I get to participate as well, because, despite my train being a train that actually begins it’s journey in Delhi, it’s not waiting on a platform… it only shows up about 15 minutes before departure time (I’m assuming it’s not to tie up platform space for the other incoming/outbound trains), so I get to run around and try and find my car and my seat along with everybody else doing the same (harder than it seems as the train is enormously long and I have to find out which end my class of cars is)… I manage to do all right, find my car, compartment and seat, stash my bag under the seat and proceed to sit down with 4 other Indian guys.  I get stared at a bit, say hello, and they all say hello back… and I strike up a five-minute conversation with the one guys who speaks limited English (a student headed to Mumbai).  That dies off pretty quickly, so I take out my book and begin reading, and train begins to edge out of the station right on schedule (9:20 AM)… and I’m off.

Chai service on the train.

Chai service on the train.

The train toilets... I know you were wondering about these...

The train toilets… I know you were wondering about these…

Let’s see… how to describe my new home for the next day and a half… maybe with some google picks here.  I have a middle berth (i.e. bunk), but the middle bunks are stashed away to make a seat out of the lower bunks.  The two top bunks are there as is.  After about five minutes from departure there’s some general settling in going on.  The one guy next to me takes off (never to be seen again mind you, the student I was speaking with gets into his top berth above my head, and the other two guys remaining on the opposite seat, set up the middle bunk on that side, and each of them lays down in their respective (bottom and middle) bunks.  I’m alone in my seat and decide to just sit there and read instead of getting into my bunk.  Time marches on… about every twenty minutes one of the train guys comes around with chai, coffee, or cold drinks and occasionally food.  I have a chai and continue to read, take a bit of a nap leaned up against the wall, and before I know it, it’s 12:15 or so… hey, only 31 hours to go.  A guys comes around with some actual food and I end up getting a vegetable biryani (rice and vegetables… the only thing available).  I eat and take another nap… everyone else in my compartment seems to be doing the same thing so I’m really just following suit.  At one point, I finally decide to get up and explore… I walk up and down my car, see both ends and go across one of the car junctions into the end of the next car… and that’s about it (I could keep walking from car to car but decide not to).  Not too much to the cars themselves… each one in mainly filled with passenger space, and on each end of the passenger space, there’s a door with two bathrooms outside, and beyond the two bathrooms is a small hallway running perpendicular to the main one with a door on each end (for getting on on and off the train) and the walkway to the next car.  One nice thing about Indian trains is that you can open the doors (the entry/exit doors) and stand there and watch the scenery go buy (the windows in the compartments themselves are alight, but people generally keep the curtains closed and don’t seem to interested in the scenery… plus the one in my compartment was all cracked so I couldn’t see much anyways).  The train never really movies that fast (even at top speed) so it’s actually pretty nice to just stand there and watch the world go by… I even took to sitting down on the edge with my feet on the step below (taking careful note to keep the tips of my feet within the plane of the edge of the train just in case anything was that close that it scraped the edge of the train that it wouldn’t hit me). Somewhere between every 20 to 40 minutes the train would arrive at a station and people would pile on and off.  I’d usually get off and walk around just to stretch my legs… and there were generally several stands selling food, drinks and other stuff, and some enterprising folks would come on board the train and walk the aisles selling whatever they brought on.  Stops lasted between 5 and 10 minutes generally, and the train would blow a short toot on the horn about a minute before leaving and then a long toot as the train started to leave… and even then, a train does not exactly take off at a jump so you had about 30 seconds to walk/run alongside and hop on.  So that’s basically how I spent my day… alternating between reading in my seat, sitting/standing at the door, walking around stations and napping.  It wasn’t half bad actually.

Biryani meal...

Biryani meal…

The open train door/edge.  I'd open the door while the train was going and stand, or sit, and watch the world go by for a bit.

The open train door/edge. I’d open the door while the train was going and stand, or sit, and watch the world go by for a bit.

Once night started to fall… sitting next to the open door became kind of moot because you couldn’t see much, so I’d go back to my seat and read and get off and walk around at the stations when i could.  At this point, I nobody else had gotten on in our compartment, so it was looking like I could just keep chilling on the bottom bunk and sleep there.  But just as I was about to settle in, at the the next stop, a whole family got on and took up all the remaining spots in my compartment (as well as all the remaining luggage space, and then some and several other bunks in other compartments as well).  They, of course, asked me to move to my proper bunk, which I did… then I got ready for bed and did some more reading as they settled in before nodding off around 11.  I woke up around 8 to the train being stopped with some calls of chai for sale.  Most of the rest of my compartment mates were already up and about (even the middle bunk on the opposite wall was already stashed).  So, I got up, stashed my bunk and pretty much ended up doing the same thing as the day before… more sitting, more scenery watching, more station walking, more reading some more chatting with strangers and more napping.  For whatever, reason, the train got a bit behind schedule, and I didn’t end up getting into my station until right at 9 PM (Wednesday night)… almost exactly 36 hours after I left Delhi.

Sunset from the train door...

Sunset from the train door…

View from the train door while sailing down the tracks...

View from the train door while sailing down the tracks…

I was glad it was over, but honestly, most of the time I was perfectly fine with the whole journey… the only time I got anxious were the times the train would stop and pull onto a siding and wait for another train to pass in the other direction (usually around 15 minutes or so), but even that was only as I approached Goa and had the end of the journey in sight   I attribute most on my non-anxiousness to the fact that I didn’t have to be anywhere at any time soon after I arrived in Goa, so I didn’t have the thought that I had to be in Goa now to experience it maximally before I had to leave on a flight back home type-of-thing…. the beauty of open-ended travel I guess.  It was actually nice not to have to do anything except be in the train… the train did all the work and you just had to go along.  It was also nice to catch up on the many hours of missed sleep I had from the wedding parties.  And when I finally got off the train, it took me a couple of hours to adjust to the fact that now I had to be proactive in my motions… like if I wanted to go somewhere, I had to walk, or take a taxi, I wouldn’t just arrive like I was on the train… it was a strange feeling to have to adjust out from.  What I thought would be the real negatives before I got on, smelly people, dangerous food, really bad bathrooms, all turned out not to be too bad (the a/c took care of really stinky people, the food was just fine and the bathrooms were cleaned pretty regularly).  I’m sure someone out there is thinking “would you do this again?”  And my honest answer as of now is yes… I would (all rights reserved to change my mind in the future).  Would I want to do it all the time… no, but when in India…



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