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India by Train

13 December 2005.

I came to the conclusion whilst in Pushkar that it was too frigging cold for me up north - even wearing two pairs of trousers, three tops and a jumper, plus a scarf I would shiver my way through the evening and at night, lying under a number of blankets, I would often have to put on my jumper and scarf to be sufficiently warm to sleep. Yes, I know it's much colder for you guys at home right now, but you have central heating and warm clothes; I'm lucky to get a room with hot water (hence my showers were becoming few and far between). There was a lot more that I wanted to see in Rajisthan, but I was just too cold to enjoy myself, so I decided to head south, and return to the state in a few months time, once the weather has improved.

I caught the bus to Ajmer and attended the Advance Bookings office at the railway station. Once there I figured out the names and numbers of the trains needed to first return me to the capital, and then take me the long journey south, to the state of Kerala. Once I'd queued (actually I pushed along with everyone else) to get the booking forms and filled them out, I waited my turn at the window marked Senior Citizens, Foreign Tourists, Group Bookings and Freedom Fighters - just who the latter are, I don't know; maybe it simply means members of the armed forces. Whilst filling out the forms I'd realised that I had forgotten to bring my passport, but was hoping that I could get away with booking the ticket by showing my UK driving license; I couldn't. I was able to establish that there were very few spaces left on the trains I wanted, but by changing the day on one, and by booking the other from a station several stops before I would get on, the official managed to find berths for me. All I had to do now was get a rickshaw back to the bus stop, take the bus back to Pushkar, get my passport and return, and all would be good. I ended up spending the best part of the day running around, but at least I had my ticket to warmer climes.

On the afternoon of the eighth of December I again caught the bus to Ajmer, and a rickshaw to the station, where I made myself comfortable in the waiting room marked "Only for Ladies" until shortly before the train was due to arrive. Hanging above the platform were nifty LED signs, that not only gave the number of the next train due (mine being the #9105 Delhi Mail), but also told you where each carriage would stop, which cut down on some of the chaos once the train pulled in. I found my bunk, which was right next to the door; an upper berth as requested to lessen the chances of being groped in my sleep. I stowed my pack under the lower berth, locking it in position, and clambered up to my lofty bed, which was relatively comfortable. I placed my daypack at the end, and used the bag containing my spare clothes as a pillow, until one by one I had donned them all in an attempt to keep warm.

Having previously fallen out of a top bunk (it was at a Brownies' pack holiday, and I sprained my wrist in the fall...or more accurately in the landing), I lay as far from the edge as possible - although the metal straps suspending the padded platform made falling out unlikely. I leaned my back against the bulkhead separating the carriage from the toilets. It felt cold at first, but I thought my body heat would warm it; I was wrong. The metal sheet remained cold throughout the night, and leeched the heat from my body. Cold drafts swept in from the corridor, chilling my toes through my socks. The light by the door remained on all night, and the door was sometimes left open by passengers at the various stations along the way. Incoming passengers would generally make no attempt to be quiet as they got on the train. This seems common in India; no consideration is given to others who may be sleeping at night; there is no conception that maybe it would be polite to keep ones voice down, and refrain from shouting.

The noise when the train was moving was constant but comforting, combined with the movement of the train it had a lulling effect. Once the train stopped (which it did frequently), the symphony of snorers was annoyingly audible. Any insomniac who has had to sleep in a room with a snorer can tell you what a smug, self-satisfied sound that can be. Rasping snores and snorts that keep you from sleep, whist at the same time advertising the fact that the noise-makers are themselves happily and soundly asleep. As my bunk was next to the toilets, other, less pleasant sounds would wake me from my light dozing too. One such was the person who was trying to clear their throat by sticking their finger down it inducing loud heaving sounds, followed by graphic hawking. That sort of thing, to be fair, is not as pervasive as in Laos or Myanmar, but common enough; it's never nice to hear, especially not when it wakes you up just in time for the four-o'clock freeze, as this did.

Sometime before six we arrived at Old Delhi station, and the passengers sluggishly gathered their belongings and exited the train into the cold December air. The station was busy, and I worked my way through the crowd, shaking off countless rickshaw drivers as I made my way to the prepaid booth. A man with a big bag slung over one shoulder nearly knocked me over as he barged past, and failed even to look around when I shouted at him, so I shoved him back - I never was a morning person. I jumped in my prepaid rickshaw and we set off, horn blaring, into the dark streets of Delhi. The traffic was bumper to bumper outside the station, and I watched while well-padded patriarchs led their families through the stationary traffic, the scarfed women looking like Russian dolls as they trailed after the head of the household.

Away from the station, Delhi was waking up more slowly. I shivered as we drove past encampments of pavement dwellers, dreading to think of a winter spent under the plastic shelters. Here and there people gathered around fires set of rubbish, arms outstretched, warming their hands near the flames. Before too long we had reached New Delhi Station, and turned right into Paharganj. I returned to the hotel that I'd stayed in when I first arrived in India to see if they had a room. They had just one, a poky little single next to the reception area, which they charged 200 rupees an extra 50 as I'd arrived early. I was too tired to shop around, so I took it. I noticed that they'd changed their checkout time from ten o'clock to twelve, so they could justify the "early check-in" charge. I didn't mind it too much for myself (though the room itself was overpriced) but I heard, as I lay in bed, that they were still charging people the extra who booked in after eight, which I thought was a little cheeky.

I eventually drifted off to sleep at some stage, and awoke feeling refreshed. I looked at my watch an was surprised to see that it was only ten o'clock...then I realised it was in dual-time mode; it was actually half-past three. I ventured out for a combined breakfast/lunch/dinner at my favourite Everest Cafe, had a bit of a wander, emailed home and then it was time for bed again! My second train journey would begin the next morning, although it would be a couple of days before it ended. I was catching the #2626 Kerala Express, and had a 47 hour journey to my destination of Kochi (AKA Cochin) in the southernmost State of Kerala.

At eleven o'clock on 12th December I was standing on the platform at New Delhi station awaiting the train, the same service that I'd taken when I went to Agra. Once it arrived I joined the throng, pushing to get in - I was determined to stow my pack under the bottom bunk. I was the first passenger to reach the set of six berths, so was surprised to find that most of the space was already taken up by boxes and bags. There was enough room for my rucksack though, so it was all good. Soon after a couple arrived explaining that the boxes were theirs as they took the seats opposite me. They'd been living for the last seven years in Nepal, but were now moving to Sri Lanka, hence the excessive belongings. She was German and had a youthful yet heavily lined face - she could have been anything from 30 to 60 years old - and had taken the name of a buddha. He was a softly spoken Israeli, and they described themselves as therapists. She showed me her flier, which advertised a wide range of courses and treatments, including keeping your inner child happy and past life therapy. At least one of their boxes was taken up with crystals and stones, and he carried a fine selection in a pouch around his waist.

Sat next to me was a divinely beautiful boy from Venezuela, who was unfortunately only going as far as Agra, and a couple of Indian men who kept themselves to themselves, and would be getting off the train that evening. I settled down to enjoy the view. As upper-berth girl I should by rights have had the seat furthest from the window, but I decided to be cheeky and pinch the window seat instead. Let me explain the seating/berths for a moment: the top and bottom berths are always in place, but the middle berth is hinged to the wall. In daytime the berth can be flipped down so it is flush with the wall, making a comfortable backrest. At night the padded berth is pulled up and suspended by chains that hang down from the top berth. In addition to this set of six berths, a further two are found on the other side of the aisle, these stretching along the length of the train, and shorter than the others.

The windows of the train are barred, to stop people reaching in and stealing things, but I made the most of the restricted view nonetheless. For most of the morning the surrounding countryside was flat; we passed some paddy fields, and others that looked like rape was planted there. In places hundreds of pooh pies were stacked up at the side of the track - cow pats are shaped into neat rounds, and dried for use as fuel; they never fail to give me a chuckle when I see mounds of them neatly arranged. In places the tracks ran close to small settlements, ramshackle houses just mud-brick boxes with corrugated iron roofs. Some of the stations we passed had people camped in them, plastic sheeting covering an A-frame; clothes drying on sticks stuck in the ground; women in colourful scarves cooking dinner over small fires outside each makeshift tent. In the late afternoon we reached a section where the land was strangely eroded - a little like I'd seen in Turkey's Capadocia region, but on a smaller scale - and was covered with yellowing grass.

rape fields, Indiastrange landscape, Indiapaddy fields, India

Shortly before sunset we pulled in to a station jam packed with hundreds of people - a whole train's worth in themselves. They swarmed into our (and every other) carriage, throwing bags up and climbing on to vacant top bunks. I had my day pack and some other stuff up there, and dissuaded some men from getting up, but acquiesced when two girls climbed up explaining that it was just for an hour, until the next stop. The German woman had been asleep on her bunk when we were invaded, and a couple of the youths made sport by reaching up into the bunk. Whether they were trying to take the covers from her, or just to touch her, I don't know, but they were pretty persistent. Even when her boyfriend got up and bopped one of them repeatedly on the head with an empty plastic bottle they continued, and some pushing and shoving ensued between him and they, which came to nothing in the end. Another man explained that the mass were on their way to visit a temple, to worship a Hindu goddess, and had been drinking so were in high spirits.

train invasion, India

Once they'd gone I took to my bunk and read (Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure), watching as the stream of hawkers sold everything from "paper soap" to books to key rings, plus a fine selection of food and drink. I'd brought some fruit with me, and bought some things that I thought of as dhal biscuits, which came with a sauce that I tried tentatively, expecting it to be hot and spicy, though in fact it tasted like the juice from tinned spaghetti. Any time a chai-wallah walked past I indulged in a cup - I think I'm addicted - I'll have to wean myself off sugar when I go home, that's for sure. The evening passed as peacefully as was possible, and by eleven the three of us foreigners had turned in & switched off the light, as the two Indian men gathered their belongings and got off the train.

Several minutes later a group of four Indians - two middle-aged couples - with numerous bags arrived amid a din of shouting. One of the men banged on my bunk & ordered me to get out, while the other started pulling out the luggage that was already ensconced under the seats, and replacing it with his own, whilst shrieking. The German hippie shook her boyfriend and told him to deal with it, then turned over to sleep. My pack was chained up, so he was unable to remove it. I shouted at him to leave it alone when he tried, adding that I had only one item of luggage and that it was staying put. I gave the Israeli my moral support, as he tried to find places to put the bags that had been evicted. Eventually the TTE - the Travelling Ticket Examiner - showed up, and was able to verify that I had a ticket for the bunk I was in, and that the foursome had only three berths allotted to them in this carriage. It later became evident that the four were part of a larger group travelling together to Kochi. By some accident three of the four were separated from the rest of the group, and stuck with the foreigners; one of them would have to join the main group for his berth.

About an hour after the curfuffle began, everyone had settled down; the lights were off, and the fat man beneath me - the one who'd banged on my bunk - was now keeping me awake with his snoring rather than his shouting. I slept, though not particularly soundly. Often I'd wake up whilst the train was stopped at a station, hearing the platform announcements, and the call of the chai-wallah ("chai-ee"). One of these occasions was around half past five, and I got up to go to the loo, and put an extra layer of clothes on as I was feeling cold. I'd just laid back down when I became aware that I was feeling a little queasy. As I lay there assessing the situation I realised that I was actually feeling very queasy, and that it would be a really good idea if I got out of my bunk and returned to the toilet. I hurriedly climbed down and dodged past the people lying in the aisle as I made my way to the corridor. The toilets were all full, but a man was fumbling to open the door. He just managed to open it as I reached point of no return, and I barged past him and vomited violently out of the doorway, half on the steps of the train and half on the platform we were slowly pulling away from. A couple of pints of chunder later I returned to my bunk, feeling much better.

no room for me. Train, Indiaspread out. Train, IndiaIn the morning the fourth of the interlopers returned, and they spread themselves out on the seats, enjoying the breakfast that was brought to them by two of the group's servants, and later playing cards. Space was limited due to the huge amount of luggage that was piled on the floor, and the three big boxes stacked on the small table. The hippies squeezed in to join them, but I was less inclined to. In the afternoon I took advantage of one of them being away and slipped down for a while. When the man returned I was made to feel most unwelcome - they kept tapping me and pointing upwards. I stuck it out for a while, showing them my ticket to demonstrate that I was entitled to be there, but in the end it was easier just to admit defeat. I returned to my bunk for a bit of a cry, and a ponder on how nasty Indians are. I'm sure they're not all aggressive, unfriendly characters, eager to cheat others, but I have to say that a significant proportion of the people I've met this trip have been. I should be more at home here, really, than in South East Asia: there the people tend to be gentle and generous, and pride themselves on their cool hearts; in northern India folk seem disagreeable sorts, quick to anger and always ready for an argument. There are many who would back me up when I say that my character is, unfortunately, more the latter. It has occurred to me that perhaps I am meant to use my time in India to sort out my own faults; and if I can't, maybe my karmic lot would see me reborn here next time around; it's a damned good incentive.

The German was convinced that I had some past life karma to sort out with one of the four. She said I had been quite intimidating when they had arrived - presumably that was when I was backing her boyfriend up in trying to dissuade them from throwing her luggage around. She said that the evening before she had been anxious about spending the day with the Indians, but as it was they had turned out to be okay, and she had realised that the negative feelings she had must have come from me - she said she often picks up others feelings. So - I thought - you preserve your karma by letting others fight your battles, and then blame your negative thoughts on others, very enlightened. I mentioned that I'd been sick in the night, and she told me this was easily explained. "Most probably the train passed through a town where you were raped or murdered in a previous life, and that brought up some karmic stress. It's very common when we travel, as we pass through many places where we have lived before." Yeah, right, that'll probably be it, mmm-hmm.

For the rest of the trip I kept mostly to my bunk, looking down from on high at the goings on inside the carriage, and emitting the odd sigh at the thought of all that lovely countryside speeding past without me looking at it - I'm almost fanatical about getting a view, as a rule. In the evening one of the men in the next group of berths began entertaining his friends by going through all the ringtones on his phone. At first I thought he was just selecting a new one, and making a bit of a meal of it, but then I saw he was holding his phone up each time, sharing the music with his companions. They then progressed to a singsong, so I stuck my earphones in and listened to the Orb instead. The hawkers continued with their various wares, the most unusual of which was the woman with a stuffed mongoose under her arm. She, like many others that had got on in the same place, was selling beaded necklaces. I'm not sure whether the mongoose was for sale or just a gimmick - or maybe even her pet.

The temperature had been increasing all day - we'd even had to put the fans on for a while. That night I didn't have to put any extra clothes on or even use my blanket, as my sleeping bag liner was sufficient. By the following morning it was wonderfully warm, and - less pleasantly - stuffy in the train, which I noticed especially after jumping off at a station to get some breakfast. Still, I was on the final furlong now, as my stop was scheduled for 1030 that morning. I was expecting us to be late, and we were by an hour and a half, which I didn't think was too bad after such a long trip. A couple of hours before the stop I burrowed into the pile of other people's possessions, and retrieved my backpack, readying myself for a quick getaway. I'd been looking forward to my mammoth journey, and all in all it wasn't too bad - at least I managed to escape unmolested and with all my belongings intact. And for under eight quid to travel 2856 kilometres, it was certainly value for money.


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