On the rails in India
In late 2011, I was given the chance to ride the railways of India for a month for Get Lost. The trip took me many thousands of kilometres across India – from Kolkata, through Varanasi and Agra, across Rajasthan, into Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and all the way back down to Delhi.
The result was ‘On the rails in India‘ in issue #31 of Get Lost magazine.
August 2008. It's 40 degrees outside, and even hotter inside this train station in Ajmer, southern Rajasthan. Beads of sweat are dripping off my face, and I’ve been here for nearly an hour, trying – and failing – to buy a ticket for the next train to Delhi. It’s a task that should be a relatively basic exercise. But then, this is India.
I stand in the ticket queue, and am shoved back and forward by those around me, before a tall 20-something guy gives me a solid shove that, combined with the 17 kilogram pack I’m carrying, sees me stumble (weakly) out of the queue. Confused and full of anger, I consider shoving back, but then think about it for too long. By that stage, my actual response is unfortunately pretty pathetic; I end up merely sending my attacker an angry look and then grumbling each subsequent time someone else jumps the queue.
By the time I do finally make it to the ticket booth, I say “one ticket for Delhi, second class” to the attendant, who, without looking up from his newspaper, hands me an piece of paper with what looks to be a timetable, but written in Sanskrit. “English?” I ask. He just gives me a faint head wobble I take to mean “no”, and begins serving the guy behind me. I breathe deeply to contain the frustration, and with my travellers’ pride well and truly dinted, I give up and organise a bus ticket for the next day.
Three and a half years later I’m on a return trip to India, and as I work my way through Kolkata’s Howrah station, those memories of ticket buying failure come flooding back. But here the queues aren’t even half-formed, they’re just large swarms of men pushing back and forth against the ticket window, all yelling at the (completely unfazed) ticket salesman. But there’s order amidst this Kolkata chaos. Wooden carts are moved seamlessly between waves of people, porters lug huge suitcases on their heads and young boys dart across empty tracks to sell newspapers to commuters. For a second, the sheer mass of people moving in all directions gives me the sense that I’m in the orderly crowds of a Tokyo metro station, although the combined wafts of samosas, bananas, urine and cow dung bring me rapidly back to Kolkata.
Fortunately, three years on from having my pride damaged at that rural train station, I’ve now got pre-booked tickets. And when I reach the doorway of carriage C, I smile with reflective relief when I see my name printed on a ragged piece of paper pasted next to the door.
A group of us are travelling with overland train trip specialists Vodkatrain on what’s been dubbed the ‘Holy Cow’ loop from north-east to northwest India. The route takes us from Kolkata to Varanasi and Agra, through the desert cities of Rajasthan, then north to Amritsar, near the Pakistani border, before heading into the Himalayan foothills of the northwest. We soak it all up: the impressive fortladen desert cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, the funeral pyres on the shores of the Ganges in Varanasi, the golden sands of Bikaner, and of course, the “tear drop on the cheek of eternity”, Agra’s Taj Mahal.
As our route takes us further north, the terrain changes from harsh brown desert to bright green fields, and eventually becomes 2,000-metre-plus mountain ranges. The lack of train lines forces us to say a temporary goodbye to the train for the journey to Amritsar, home of the truly moving Golden Temple – the spiritual home of Sikhism. The complex sees tens of thousands of Sikhs from across the world each day, and is home to Guru Ka Langar, what must surely be the world’s biggest community kitchen. Staffed 24 hours a day by visiting worshippers, food is prepared on a massive scale, feeding an estimated 40,000 people each day. As I tuck into my plate of roti, dhal and pudding late one evening, I look around and find it difficult to believe I’m at a sit-down dinner with more than a thousand friends.
Our stop in Amritsar also takes us to the ‘Berlin Wall of Asia’, the Indian-Pakistan border town of Wagah, home to a daily flag-lowering ceremony where the border police forces of both countries put on a display of semi tongue-in-cheek stand-offishness. Despite the scowls and taunts, it’s actually extremely well coordinated by both parties. It’s a bit like a scene from Monty Python’s ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’. The daily event attracts well over 2,000 screaming Indians and Pakistanis every afternoon, cheering on their nation from grandstands on their respective sides of the border fence. It’s bizarre, but absolutely hilarious.
We then head even further north to Dharamsala, most commonly known as the Indian headquarters of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. For two days we ditch the parathas and curries in favour of Tibetan fare such as momos and thukpa, and stretch our legs on walking trails in the surrounding mountains. Our trip then takes us 270 kilometres south east to Shimla, the former summer getaway
location for the British that feels more like a central European town than a mid-sized Indian city. Shimla is now renowned as a top honeymoon destination for newlyweds from Dehli, and it is from here where we make our last train trip: a slow roll down the Himalayan foothills on a 113-year-old UNESCO World Heritage listed ‘toy train’. Taking over five hours to cover just 96 kilometres, it’s a slow but spectacular send-off to northern India.
Yet while the cities and sites along this three-week-long route are all impressive, it’s aboard the train, and at the train stations – mini-Indian cities in themselves – that I take part in my favourite travel activity in India: people watching. At Jaipur station, a group of 40 young scouts wearing brand new uniforms join hundreds of others sleeping on the station floor, causing pile-ups of tripped-up commuters. At Bikaner, two cross-dressing Indian men playfully parade up and down the Bikaner train platform, to the bemusement of fellow commuters. And at Varanasi, a cleaner half-heartedly attempts to shoo two cows from the tracks of an oncoming train, before the bellowing horn of the huge locomotive eventually forces them to move out of the way.
As travel writing legend Paul Theroux noted when in India on his 1975 train travel odyssey from London and across Asia, Indian railway stations “are like scale models of Indian society, with its divisions of caste, class, and sex”. And as observers, we are likely to just accept these divisions as part of the complexity of Indian society. However when you witness women and children caught up in the frightening, step-over-anyone-for-a-seat scramble faced by third class passengers at each stop, these societal divisions can be a little harder to cope with.
Yet as any seasoned Indian traveller would likely confirm, India does toughen you up, whether you want it to or not. For me, it was at the one-week mark of my trip when I came to see how much the push-and-shove of Indian railway life had already affected me. Queuing for a ticket to Udaipur’s spectacular Monsoon Palace, a heavily-set Indian muscled his way in front of the young girl standing in front of me. Those embarrassing memories of Ajmer station, three years earlier, flashed straight back into my mind. “Nup, not this time,” I said under my breath. And with that, I dipped my body and gave the offending queue-jumper a solid hip-and-shoulder that even my grade six footy coach would have been proud of. Laughter broke out amongst my fellow queuers and the burly queue jumper stumbled, confused, back out of the queue, and took his rightful place at the end of the line. While his immediate reaction was one of shock, when I left the queue, ticket in hand, I caught a hint of a smile – and respect – on his face. With that I thought, “Yep, I think I like this new, more Indian me.”