Tuesday, November 1, 2011


If there is one thing I have learned about the Indian rail system, it's this: book in advance.  The country is densely gridded with tracks, but there aren't nearly as many trains as there are people wanting to get on them.

My first trip took me between Delhi and Gwalior.  I bought a waitlisted ticket, 11 on the list, and actually got a seat.  I've since realized that most waitlisted tickets aren't worth the paper that they're printed on.  And it was in 1st class ("AC class"), so I had a whole berth to myself in a nice quiet car. I really had no idea how lucky I was.

I took a short hop on the unreserved seats between Orchha and Khajuraho.  Those are the cars you see in movies sometimes, with twenty faces bobbing at every open, barred window and five or six people crammed into the little vestibule, probably standing on a sack of onions.  I'd attached myself to a pair of French tourists that I've since crossed paths with in Varanasi and Darjeeling, and we found an ally who bullied the other passengers into making room for us.  For a short, three hour trip, it wasn't so bad.

For a long, twelve-hour trip, however, it was torture.  Because I tried to book a train between Khajuraho and Varanasi and, after my earlier experience, took a chance with a waitlisted ticket.  It was cancelled, there were no seats in any of the other cars, and I ended up in the unreserved cars again.  Alone this time.  I made half the journey in the "family" car, with women and children who were pretty nice, actually.  One of the women moved her baby from where it spawled on the seat so I could sit down, and if I was surrounded by twelve people in a space meant to hold six, well, at least they were nice, polite people.  But then I had to transfer in Allahabad and I got into a general seating car where I sat clutching my purse, surrounded by men, feeling prickly and uncomfortable for four more hours.  I didn't eat or drink the whole time, from sunup past sundown, and the whole experience was pretty hellish.

After that, I decided I'd learned my lesson.  I went back to the station at Varanasi the next morning and booked as many onward tickets as I could.  When I arrived at the station for my trip to Darjeeling I was feeling pretty smug about it, too, thinking that I'd get on a 9pm train, have a nice sleep in my 3AC berth, and wake up in time to freshen up before the train rolled to a stop in New Jalpaiguri, from where I'd have to catch a shared jeep the remaining distance north to Darjeeling.

So, naturally, the train was late.  Not just my train, either.  The whole station filled up with people who laid out blankets and filled up the main booking hall and every waiting area, sleeping and chatting away the hours.  I'd see people tucked against walls, blanketed from head to toes, looking like corpses.  At first the enquiry agents made some attempt to keep everyone posted about the delays, but eventually it got late and they abandoned their posts.

I hooked up with a few other tourists so we could all pool information.  We settled down in the first class waiting room, which was definitely the nicest place to wait in the station, but that wasn't saying much.  It was pretty grubby, attached to a pair of bathrooms that sent out a nice reek every time anyone opened the door - the sink was broken, so no water, and actually, one of the bathrooms wasn't so much a bathroom as a shower that had been rather sloppily converted to its present use - and a pair of rats that would peek out into the waiting room every minute or two through a convenient notch in the bottom of the bathroom door.  They'd creep into the room, someone would wave something or slap their feet against the floor to send the rats scurrying in another direction, and the process would repeat with until the rats retreated to the bathroom to regroup for their next attempt.

I spent six hours in that room.

I've been keeping pretty early hours - traveling alone, as a woman, I'd be unwise to dive into the nightlife - so as the clock crept toward midnight I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open.  A couple of the other tourists fell asleep but a few of us had to remain awake because the only updates we were getting about the trains were through overhead announcements, tinny and hard to understand.  The only thing any of us could ever really decipher from these announcements were the train numbers, a series of four or five digits, and so we had to keep one ear on this constant staticky babble, listening for numbers amidst a stream of indecipherable words, waiting to recognize the code that meant our train was about to arrive.

As a final note about the Mughal Sarai train station: all of the ads on the walls were for undershirts.  So if I were, say, trotting between the waiting room and the enquiry office I'd see the rats, then these pictures of men in wifebeaters, one brand after another, then hundreds of people all asleep in the main hall, then this board telling me my train had been delayed yet again.

So yeah.  The train finally arrived at two-thirty in the morning.  It racked up a few extra hours of delay en route and dropped us in New Jalpaiguri at 8pm instead of 1:30.  We stumbled into Siliguri and had to pay through the nose to get a pair of teenagers - literally, they were both under 18 - to drive us up the steep, twisting roads, in the dark, to Darjeeling.

I spent all of yesterday recovering.  Today too, to be honest.  Luckily, the weather here is bad, cloudy and rainy.  On a clear day, there are points nearby from where you can see Everest.  Until the weather changes, though, I'm not missing anything.  As far as I can tell, there are no mountains here at all.  Just fog.

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