Friday, 31 July 2009

India by rail

On our second trip to India in 2007, we mostly got around the vast areas we covered by train. The first part of this post has the fun part - the dreadful and most exciting, but not most comfortable incident of our trip. The second part has our itinerary and general appreciation and recommendations for Indian train travel. The third part is about an entirely different type of Indian train, the Palace on Wheels.
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The Dreadful Anecdote
or what happened to us on an Indian train at 2am.

Since Mike had to go home early to do work, much of the train travel involved Pen, Julia and Antonia, who had just turned six. The nice, pleasant, relaxing bits during which we read all the Harry Potter books, ate, slept and looked at India don't make nearly such a good story as the brief, but dreadful anecdote. Because we were really squeezed for time and things we wanted to see, we decided to have our driver take us straight from a day long visit of Ajanta to Jalgaon where we would be catching a train to Bhopal at 1 in the morning. Not very desirous of hanging out in the station for 7 hours, we checked into a small hotel a short walk away, had showers and went for dinner in the restaurant next door, then for a short nap. So far, so excellent - our cheap hotel was clean and the proprietor very helpful about waking us up, our dinner was very nice, and we enjoyed the erratic presence of electricity in the town.

At 12.45, we strolled up to the station wheeling our luggage and practically carrying Antonia to begin our long wait on the platform. As usual, the train was considerably late - I suppose it showed up at about 2 am - and we were very tired. We knew which our carriage was, but no matter what we did, the door would not open. Experienced as we were by now, we knew we didn't have very long and were starting to feel panicked. Sure enough the train made that peculiar noise they do make before they're about to go. To our left was a long line of thoroughly closed-looking AC carriages. To our right was the last carriage in the whole train. This was an open (non-AC) carriage and we think they always tack one of these on the end of the train as a sort of overflow carriage for standing room only tickets. Julia and I looked at each other, made a beeline for it and jumped in as the train started to move. It seemed like we would hardly fit, as the entrance to the carriage was so filled with people, but that didn't stop seven men jumping in behind us and shoving.

Now, I have to say, the traumatic part of this experience for Antonia was the thought that she might somehow be left behind on the platform by herself. Little kids don't always realise that adults are actually looking after them, and that Julia and I always automatically made sure she was the second on the train, so that no matter what, she would find herself with at least one adult. Then again, she was worried about being stranded somewhere in India in the middle of the night, whereas Julia and I knew very well that if we missed the train it was just a big nuisance, but we could return to our hotel and sort things out in the morning.

Still we were in, and by dint of yelling, the seven train-jumpers behind us managed to wake up the two men who were lying asleep in front of the toilet. It then transpired that their bodies had been the only thing holding the toilet door closed. Nevertheless, Julia grabbed a sitting space in front of the toilet and I pushed Antonia onto her lap. I had been quite worried about her getting squashed or not being able to sleep all night, so I was pleased. Still, this put Julia in the desirable role of likely matron, and left me as possible available female. Before long, the chap squashed next to me had his arm so far round my waist that his hand reached my breast. I returned the errant hand to him firmly. He looked around a bit and I think he twigged. Antonia and I do look rather similar.

- Oh, is that your daughter?
- Yes, I said coldly
- Where is your husband?
- ..... (no, I didn't say any of the things I should have said. Instead I asked him how far it was to the next station.)
- About 10 minutes (sigh of relief from me). How are you liking India?
- Oh, very well - up until now!

At the next station, Julia and I agreed, we would head for the regular class, slightly smarter conductor-policed carriages, find one with some standing room in, and let the conductor deal with us. We ran down the train, trying every door as we went. Lo and behold, our carriage door now opened and the conductor was standing in the door. When I saw his bleary eyes and unmade bed, I was absolutely convinced he had slept through the Jalgaon station, failing to unlock the doors. I thought of giving him a piece of my mind, but I was so pleased to see my air conditioned bunk at 3am that in the end I said nothing at all.

In retrospect, Julia and I found our adventure absolutely hilarious, though Antonia not so much. To cap it all, on our last day in India, we went to a cinema in Delhi and saw a nice Bollywood movie called Jab We Met, which involved a guy and a girl's misadventures with train travel. It reminded us so much of our own experience, it seemed made for us.
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Itinerary

Mumbai -> Guntakal
Hospet -> Guntakal -> Thane
Thane -> Manmad -> Aurangabad
Jalgaon -> Bhopal
Bhopal -> Indore
Indore -> Gwalior -> Jhansi
Jhansi -> Delhi
  • The Man in Seat Sixty-One taught me everything I needed to know about rail travel, in India and elsewhere. After browsing there, I knew what the different carriage classes were like and how to access the India Railways timetable to decide which trains I wanted.
  • Indrail passes suited us because of the length and complexity of our itinerary. We booked passes and trains in advance through SD Enterprises in the UK, which worked out very well for us. Much better than waiting in a queue at the station unless you're bumming around India for a year and don't care.
  • We chose to travel second class with air conditioning. This was very worth it for us, considering we were with a six year old who could use a break from the heat and the constant attention. Conversely, the people traveling in second class AC were generally cosmopolitan men and women who were invariably friendly and helpful if we requested any information, but pretty much ignored tourists otherwise, in the same way that tourists get pretty much ignored on a train in Europe. Anyone looking to strike up a ten hour conversation with an Indian family had better go ordinary class. Also AC windows are on the grimy side and the view may be less good.
  • Even though we booked weeks in advance, we could not always get the routes we wanted, or bunks together. We did always get at least two bunks together, which we needed because of Antonia.
  • The trains were usually up to two hours late, but they showed up eventually.
  • Generally, the only way to discover which platform we should be on was to ask other people if we were in the right place. Since the trains arrived at unpredictable times, we also had to check with them if a given train was ours. I think the stations were generally very well organised. The problem was due to our inability to understand the announcements.
  • Trains in Madhya Pradesh usually had mice roaming around the floor, compared to trains from Mumbai to the South which did not. Just saying.
  • But the food was generally very nice and copious. Someone comes round and takes your order and then turns up with the food at meal times (at least in 2AC). They also come round with cups of tea. You need small change to pay for all this.
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The Palace on Wheels

On our first trip to India, when we feeling young, free and much richer, Mike and I took the Palace on Wheels train/hotel around Rajasthan and to Agra. Was it worth it? Obviously, that question only makes sense starting from the premise that you might spend that much money on a holiday. Sure, you can stay in India for months for what the ticket cost, but at the time we had jobs to go backk to. That being the case, I would say yes, it was worth it for us. Apart from the fact that it was much more comfortable than travelling by road, it allowed us to see the sights of Rajasthan in a period of time we would never have covered otherwise. We would never have made it to Jaisalmer, which turned out to be one of our favourite places.

Certainly, passengers are quite (very) insulated from the sensory overload that is India. It would be a shame to just do something like the PoW. They did take us shopping pretty regularly, but actually we didn't mind, as we were looking for a few things for our new home. Think honeymoon trip for the slightly nervous professional couple who want a taste of India rather than back-packers adventure.

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