India by Train, 2004-2005
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India is so big that they call it a sub-continent. According to Wikipedia, there are 122 official, individual languages, and 1599 ‘other’ languages in this unique and bizarre country.
When visiting the North of India, while speaking to a South India, I was informed that they consider themselves as foreigners there.
This extremely diverse country is unified by the language that was brought to them by their former oppressors, the British Empire, in the form of the English language. It is the commonality amongst 1 billion people from different regions, with different religions, languages and ethnicities.
While the British were cruel and brutal masters, spawning the peaceful rebellion of the great Gandhi, they also left an infrastructure that connected the country, in the form of the glorious railway system!
This would be the primary way of travelling during my 9 months in India (with a break in Nepal… they don’t have so much of a train system due to the mountains. My adventures by Bus are another story altogether!)
The first memorable train journey I took was a narrow gauge train up the mountainside from Kalka to Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayas. This 96 km piece of track was completed in 1903 and existed to transport the government of the occupying British administration between Delhi and their summer capital in Shimla.
New Zealand has narrow-gauge railways, required to make turns in the hills and mountains and are generally 24 inches or 60 centimetres, but some go as tiny as 10 and a half inches or 25.4 centimetres.
This Indian Kalka to Shimla track is 2 feet and 6 inches wide, or 76.2 cm, gigantic by New Zealand standards.
The memorable thing about this journey was the beautiful and picturesque journey through forest and hills. At one point the train is curling around a tight valley and it’s possible to take a photo of most of the train in one shot (But can I find that photo on my old photo CDs… No!)
The funny thing about arriving at the destination was the effect the altitude had on me (and the bout of food poisoning that I caught just before leaving Delhi). I was so shakey that this altitude of 2,276 m (7,467 ft) above sea level left me gasping for breath. I’m not very good at altitudes. Lucky I’m not interested in climbing mountains.
So my travelling companion and I enlisted (or rather got a little bit hustled into accepting) the help of a local Gurkah, who for a few rupees picked up both of our packs (weighing in the area of 35 to 40kgs) and strapped them to his back with a bootlace, and literally ran up the hill from the station, leaving both of us gasping for breath in his dust!
Shimla is a beautiful and picturesque town that time left behind (or at least time had left it behind in 2004 when I was there… I hope it’s not full of terrible highrise building by now, I guess not, as it’s built on the side of a mountain) and I highly recommend visiting it if you find yourself in the north of India!
In India, if you want to go a good distance at speed and in style, the Shatabdi Express is the one for you! It costs more than the usual long-distance trains, but is much closer in comfort to Western trains and even included a hot meal! The Shatabdi Express is most often used by Profesional Indians as a commuter train and is very easy to use… But some care is needed. The writing in India is best described as Squiggly, and although English is usually written nearby, the proximity of platforms and departure times can be tricky…
My travel companion and I boarded what we thought was the correct train south, on what we thought was the correct platform, and it left within minutes of the correct time. But about 30 minutes into our 2 and a half hour journey the ticket inspector informed us that we were on the wrong train, that it actually left from the adjacent platform several minutes later.
And that we would have to get off at the next stop and return to Delhi. The next stop wasn’t for another hour or so as this was a fast train that didn’t stop at every village it passed…
So we buckled ourselves in and enjoyed the journey.
The return train ride took twice as long, stopped at every goat shed on the way and took up most of the day. Luckily we were informed by the ticket inspector that we could apply for a refund for our ticket as long as we went to Ticket office 19 and filled out a form within 8 hours of the train’s arrival at its destination.
By the time we got back to Delhi Central Station, it was approaching the time limit and although we were tired from a day of trains and stations, we decided now was the moment to get our money back. It was only something like £30 but it was a lot for a couple of shoestring travellers.
Delhi Central Station is a typical Indian affair, grand British Raj style architecture, entirely taken over by the madness that is Indian life. There were families literally living in the station hall cooking their food on little portable cookers, touts preying on newly arrived tourists, and touts praying to their gods in the breaks between preying on newly arrived tourist.
We set out on our mission to get our refund at Ticket Office 19. The ticket offices lining the ticket hall were numbered from 1 to 18 in the main area, and from 20 to 32 in another area, but the coveted Ticket Office 19 was nowhere to be found.
We wandered back and forth, carrying our too-heavy packs in the heat that is Delhi while the time on the clock slowly ticked by… this £30 was looking less and less likely to find its way back to us.
Eventually, my travel companion did the Girly-thing to do and asked someone. Amazingly it worked!
We were directed to a set of unmarked stairs between Office 18 and 20. A cunning ploy to not pay people their refunds perhaps?
These stairs led up to another floor, along a corridor and into a huge admin area that was like quite literally stepping back in time to the British Empire.
Not a computer in sight, folders stuffed with pieces of paper lined the hallway like they were building a wall, clerks bent over desks with those green lamps that you see in old banks on each desk, they virtually had visors and clips on their sleeves.
It was quite a wonderful sight.
The clerk that served us had impeccable English with a strong accent, was efficient and gracious, and not long after had returned our cash to us, after a stern warning about taking the correct train in future.
So after our day of travel, we had ended up in exactly the same place as we started, returned to the same hotel and planned to strike out again the following day on the correct train…
However, India had different plans for us!
We had an encounter with Bollywood instead!
Part 2 of Kiwi’s Adventures in India – Travelling by Train – is coming soon!
But until then, why not sign up to our newsletter and be informed as soon as the next post is published!
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