Paul Theroux said, “anything is possible in a train. A great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good nights sleep and a strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” He also said that there’s no better way to experience a country than on one of its trains.
For nowhere is this more true than in India. The times spent huddled up on my bunk watching the country fly past outside are among the most memorable of my trip – even more memorable than their destinations – and I urge anyone planning their own to book themselves a ticket on at least one train before they go. Bring ear plugs, a travel pillow, a good book, an open mind and a sense of humour.
These are some of the things I miss the most about those long journeys.
- “Chaiiiii, chaii masalaaaaaa?” Obviously the blog title gave this one away. But there was nothing more comforting on long, arduous train rides than hearing the chai vendor ambling up and down the carriage every half-hour. Everyone remembers their first tiny cup of the stingingly sweet, spicy tea that got us through the journeys. When I smell chai now, it gets me all nostalgic about my first, on a train carriage between Delhi and Varanasi.
- The faces and families we shared berths with for ten-or-more-hour stretches. The curious stares, the shy smiles, those cute kids, the food shared, all those jokes completely lost in translation, the unlikely friendships. I hope they don’t forget about me, because I won’t ever forget them.
- The chaos on (and off) the platform. Anyone who has ever travelled by train in India has their first experience of a train station etched into their permanent memory. At least, I know I do; I remember watching, at first in complete dismay, then in amusement as a hundred young boys and men sprinted along the platform and threw themselves onto our arriving train before it had even stopped. They yelled, pushed, shoved, and even dived head first through open windows of the moving carriage just to ensure a seat. Meanwhile off-platform, on the actual trainlines, men just stood socialising.
4. Gaining a fresh perspective on train line safety. Every unwritten train station rule we take for granted back home is blown out of the water in India. It’s cool. It seems to work still. Watch closely and there’s still efficiency within the chaos. Who thought up the idea of bridges connecting platforms anyway? Complete waste of time and energy when you can just walk across the train lines. And if your toddler needs the toilet? You don’t need to take them to a filthy public washroom, hell, just pull their keks down and lower them onto the tracks!
5. “PAAAANII water, cutlet…” I loved it when a food vendor hopped onto our carriage, or stuck their heads through our window at a station stop. The biryanis, the daals, the breakfast ‘cutlets’ (whatever they are; still don’t know, but they were delicious), the salad made out of chopped onion and rice crispies (yes, really) and the never ending assortment of strangely flavored crisps and diabetes-in-a-wrapper biscuits on offer always got us excited.
- Looking out of the window. Well duh. Everyone’s favourite railway pastime and one I needed to add to the list. I loved sitting back under and watching all of India play out in front of me. …Apart from that one time when the window was completely blacked out with dirt. On an eighteen hour journey. There’s only so many games of shithead one couple can handle. There’s only so many station stops one can jump off at and quickly run around to the other side of the window to try and unsuccessfully scrub the shit off with Nivea facewipes.
- Struggling! No one could help but laugh at Matt, at a lofty 6”2 struggling to preserve his ‘I’m cool. I do this all the time’ seasoned-traveller integrity whilst banging his head on the ceiling of his bunk every four minutes. Or trying to climb/slide/dangle down from his 3rd tier bed when there was no ladder. All you really need to survive travel through India is a sense of humour.
- Some of the best nights sleeps I’ve had. Above being said, the AC1, 2 and 3 cabins of Indian trains are really comfy places to rest your head at night. The sheets are always clean and the gentle rocking motion of the train is soothing. It’s wonderful drifting to sleep knowing that when you wake up you’ll have arrived at the next destination in your big adventure. (Note: I’d still recommend the ‘sleeper class’ cabins for daytime journeys which don’t require sleeping: they’re cheaper, busier and more fun. But a bit less cosy).
- The lack of doors. So the trains have doorways… Just no actual doors. Even when there are doors, they’re never shut. Men and women travelling by train in India usually sit on the floor with their feet hanging out of the train, and technically they can jump on or off the vehicle whenever it is moving slow enough. (Don’t worry mum, I’m speaking speculatively here!) But that precariousness, the blast of hot wind and dust in your face you get as you pass by the doorway – there’s nothing that evokes a bigger or more romantic sense of freedom.
10. The efficiency. There’s a longstanding assumption that travel is chaotic and full of barriers in India. The bigger picture may be, but travel in the literal sense – the transport – is surprisingly efficient and timely. Trains, if booked well in advance using a reputable site and apps such as Cleartrip, are a breeze. You’ve got to hand it to a train network that transports as many as 20 million passengers per day, safely from A to B across a country large enough to be a continent, with a seventeen-hour journey costing as little as £10.
Of course, despite the efficiency, travel in India still isn’t exactly a walk in the park, so click here for advice on how to book train travel in India, and what exactly to expect.