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.
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
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.”