Taking the train–overland travel in India

Beautiful Darjeeling - worth the long trip to get thereHere’s a number one tip for anyone planning to travel by train in India – expect delays.

After months of careful planning and timetable checking, our travel schedule came unravelled in one fell swoop when the departures board at Mughal Sarai Junction informed us that the Shatabdi Express was delayed by thirteen hours.  Thirteen hours soon became sixteen hours, then twenty and before we knew it, our train was running a whole day late. The dejected but resigned faces of those around us confirmed that this was by no means uncommon.  In India you can travel pretty much anywhere by train – providing you have plenty of time, patience and a healthy dollop of good humour.

The taxi driver who’d dropped us off at the station knew before we did that the train was delayed and was quick off the mark to offer his services in running us – via the ATM – to a ‘friend’s hotel’, but given that we’d only just met him, we decided to err on the side of caution and take matters into our own hands.  And so it was, that we discovered the joys of the Indian Railway system’s retiring rooms. Enquiries in the waiting room alerted us to the fact that there might be a ‘hotel’ at the railway station and after a tedious hour of queuing (including half an hour in the ‘wrong’ queue), payment of a modest amount for a room, plus twice as much again in baksheesh to oil the wheels, we had the dubious honour of unlocking our room.  It was less than salubrious with bed sheets that didn’t seem to have been washed any time recently, so the term hotel was something of an overstatement, but needs must when you opt for the budget adventure travel option across India. It beat an unplanned night on the platform with all our baggage at any rate.

A constant stream of platform announcements and the relentless clatter of thousands of people passing through the station put paid to any attempts to sleep but at least we had a bed to lie on, a light and book each to read.

Finally the departures board announced the imminent arrival of our train so we heaved and shoved with the best of them to get on board, only to discover an old lady sleeping in one of our allotted bunks. With relief, we soon established that she did indeed have her own space with family in the compartment across the corridor, but she’d decided to spread out a bit – cosily tucking herself up in our bedding as she did.  Thank heavens for sleeping bags.

Sighing with relief, we settled down into the journey and the next fifteen hours aboard proved to an experience like no other, presenting us with a fascinating insight into the intricacies of Indian train travel. Like a haat on wheels, there is nothing (or so it seemed) that you can’t buy on board a long distance train in India… Tea and coffee salesmen traversed the length of the train with steaming kettles of hot beverages, quickly pursued by others dispensing sometimes dubious looking snacks from cavernous buckets while yet more peddled a mind boggling array of household goods.

Finally, as the first rays of early morning light pierced the grey shadows of a very long night, we peered through bleary dust caked windows as the scenes of rural India unfolded before us, a landscape of lush green fields, dotted with the bright jewels of sari clad workers.

At long last, we heaved ourselves off the train into the luminous sunshine of New Jalpaiguri station, ready for the next leg of our trip to Darjeeling.  An  adventure on the world famous Darjeeling Himalayan Mountain Railway beckoned…

Tags: , , , , January 2nd, 2012 Posted in Articles, Travel articles

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