Some people, in fact many people, have the notion that train travel in India is romantic. It is not. Interesting, entertaining, and an excellent way of witnessing culture up close and personal, yes, but romantic, no. Basic is a word that springs to mind. If cleanliness is important, then it is best to find another form of transport. If privacy is an issue, then train journeys are to be avoided at all costs. I won’t mention the bathroom arrangements.
This sense of romance comes from the days of the Empire, when the British travelled using steam boats to get to their conquered lands and then built an impressive railway system throughout India to ferry their administrators far and wide. Their might was emphasised in the building of Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, a statement of ownership of the lifeblood of India if ever there was one – cue strains of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. A lot of what the British did in India often makes me want to hang my head in shame, but in terms of unifying the country and providing an excellent and inexpensive way to travel, the railways do come into their own.
The onslaught on the senses starts at the railway station, which in Old Delhi (in fact most stations) is a teeming mass of humanity. There are groups of people, sitting, squatting and eating meals, sleeping on the floor, or rushing from platform to platform. It is hectic, confusing and not for the faint hearted. I find that it is better to engage a porter (easy to spot by their red shirts), if, for nothing else, to lead you through the melee and get you to the right platform.
Be prepared to bargain! The white face always commands a much higher fee for baggage carriage. Once negotiated, a skinny man, who will look to be at least 70, will balance whatever luggage he can on his head, usually up to two large suitcases, pick up the left over bags and despite looking particularly unsteady on stick-thin, bow legs, set off at an astounding speed into the vast crowd.
Fearing that you may never be reunited with your bags again, you rush to keep up with him, even keeping him in view through the throng can be a challenge as he takes stairs two at a time, and careers up and down over platforms, stepping around family gatherings, and vendors hawking everything from books to cucumbers to chai, until he deposits you at the right spot – exactly the right spot where your seat will be. It is, for first time train travelers, an astounding experience.
I am now an old hat at train travel, and so for my more recent excursion, I decided to skip getting on the train at Old Delhi and instead, chose to board at the much smaller station, Delhi Cant. Having never been here before I was delighted to discover that it had just three platforms so there was no fear of getting lost, a huge number of people still, but a smaller distance to manage, and given that there were no porters, this was a relief. I was to board the double decker train to Jaipur, another first for me and having not heard of the double decker before thought it must be a smart new train. I smiled sweetly at the station master and asked him which was platform number three. The furthest away. No problem, I then looked around me and seeing no way to get to platform three, followed the station master along the platform in order to ask how to get there. He muttered ‘across, across’ and gestured impatiently. After a momentary confused pause, I realised that yes, he did mean across the tracks, of course, how else? So simple when you think about it. Remembering every aspect of my green cross code, look left, look right and RUN, I gathered my bag and set off across the tracks reaching the other side.
Problem number one resolved, I discovered problem number two of a porterless station. Where to stand? This was particularly important as this was not a main stop, and so the train would only stop for two minutes. I decided on hovering around the middle of the platform.
Of course, as soon as the train pulled in, I was ten carriages away from the one I should have been on. The crowds began running and on reaching the correct carriage door, the inevitable pushing and shoving ensued. We may have given India the railways, a common language and a ridiculous bureaucracy, but orderly queuing we did not. I started to run down the platform and when the train bellowed its departing horn, I was still three carriages from where I should have been. I hastily threw my bags through the next available door, knocking over a couple of unsuspecting passengers as I did so. I would like to think that my ensuing leap to join them, was as elegant as that of a startled gazelle however a rugby player piling into a scrum was probably more accurate as I launched myself from the platform and into the moving train.
I picked myself up and tried to find my seat, three carriages down the train. The double decker train was not new, merely new to me. Struggling with my bags, I meandered down the carriages until I found mine. An arrow up with seat numbers, pointed to the top deck, an arrow down with seat numbers, pointed to the bottom deck. I found my seat, on the middle deck, on the double decker train!!! Only in India.