India has the most comprehensive railway network we had ever experienced. As soon as we crossed from the Nepal border we were already taking transport to the nearest city with a railway station. It took us a little while to get comfortable with the India train and railway system.
Our first try buying a ticket was a nightmare of an attempt at the Gorukpur railway station. We found the nearest ticket window, however as we waited in line we realised we were in the unreserved seniors line; explaining the hundreds of old men pushing us around. We left when Sonya was finally pushed out the line. We then tried the computer booking service, this was a lot better but we still had problems finding the place and then waiting in lines. A line clearly marked for tourists only, but had half of India pushing in. For the rest of our India trip we opted to pay people (‘booking agents’) to arrange tickets, costing us about fifty rupees (one dollar) each time. I’m still unsure how many of those were genuine ticket sellers or just people who hung around tourist hotels.
Next came trying to catch a India train. Not much is signposted and when platform details are there, it changes very soon after. A number of times we found ourselves waiting on the wrong platform, or close to boarding the wrong train. Fortunately, many a times, Sonya took the initiative and ask somebody if we were on the correct platform.
Once inside the train’s carriage, there’s the strategic mind game of musical train seats. There are eight sleeping beds per compartment, two lots of three bunk beds and then a single lot of two bunk beds along the aisle. If you are the unlucky one to get the middle or upper bunks you are at the mercy of the lower bunk’s passenger who can shoo you away from a seat because they wish to sleep, even though it is broad daylight. Many couples pre-book the two bunk beds along the aisle and stake their claim by stretching their legs on the lower bunk so no other passengers may sit down. In the end we would sit straight on the upper bunks, we got a bit of privacy and were out of reach of beggars and riffraff.
Now, I know the above sounds like a lot of work to ride a train, but here is the most enjoyable part: the food. Prior to your departure on the platform, you can easily pickup snacks of lychees or mangos, magazines and drinks all with the sellers coming to you. On the train it gets even better, briyani, dhal, lassies and hot chai, all without the need to leave your seats. We’ll never forget the joyous sound of the young men walking up the aisles shouting ‘pani (which is water), cool drink’.
One of the major culture shocks for me was the way the locals treated their environment; rubbish was simply thrown out the train window without a second thought. As one cleaner swept the train, I watched thinking, ‘that’s good of them to remove the rubbish’, only to find he swept it out the carriage door.
Overall train riding is an interesting way to see and experience India.