The Great Indian Railway

During one random conversation, my friend told me how obsessed (for lack of better wording) her husband is with Indian trains and the experience that comes with it. He was so intrigued by what he had heard about them that he was pestering her to go to India on their honeymoon just to get a taste of the train experience.

His prime interest- to shove his way in to an overcrowded Indian train!. Would have been quite the honeymoon I must say!!

I’ve had my share of train journeys across India (I was a student living on a tight budget, what did you expect?). I’ve travelled from north to south and west to east, I’ve practically lived on trains for days at an end. I’ve seen the landscape change from the shores of Chenni to Delhi and alongside I’ve seen the cultural change. I’ve seen the language change from Marathi to Bengali and along with it the flavor of food.

I personally have a love-hate relationship with the great Indian railway. It can be the best mode of travel through India and sometimes the worst and in some cases both at the same time.

  • Safety

Haha!! There is no such thing! You decide to take an overnight train? Kid you’re on your own! Unless you travel in first class, having your luggage safe, unattended is a myth. You better have your luggage chained up at all times. Yes! Literally! You can buy these thick metal chains that I’ve never seen in any other country I’ve traveled to, from the train station to serve as your safety companion. You’ll find hooks at the bottom of your seat through which you can run these chains to fasten your luggage. Keep your valuables like your passport very close to you, Fanny packs are ideal for this.

I’m not trying to inflict fear in you but it is what it is! Not just when you’re on the train, but you should be mindful even when you’re on the platform. You will not know from where or when someone would come and take what is yours! You lose concentration for a minute or two and your belongings are gone.

  • Food

Food on trains are surprisingly good! As long as you have a strong digestive system that is!  Bread-omelet for breakfast with chai, Wada and Kur-kure for snacks and railway biryani for dinner is the way to go. Depending on what part of the country you are traveling through the taste of food will change drastically! But the basics will be the same- In the morning you’ll be woken up to a train attendant shrieking “Breeeead Omleeett” and “Chaaaaaaiii” and for lunch and dinner an attendant will come and get your orders a few hours before lunch/dinner time and deliver them to your seat. Paani bottles are ever-present and so are local snacks, including counter fit Lays.

Go vegetarian as much as possible because you don’t want to have an upset stomach given the washroom situation.

  • Getting your ticket

Indian trains are an experience even before you step on them. You have two ways to get your tickets- one through the ticket counter, other through a sketchy guy from an outside agency. Don’t really know how the sketchy guy works but your name will be on the list, tried and tested (not recommended though). Yes there is a LIST especially on overnight trains, you’ll find this list pasted next to the door of the compartment.

Sketchy guy or not make sure your name is on the list and also check your name and gender on the ticket, because some ( I emphasize on some) ticket collectors may make a scene for the most random reasons specially when your identity proof is a passport. They know you are an easy target to shake a few bucks out of your pocket- yes bribery is a thing on trains too. So best option book in advance, way advance!.

Also make sure you reach the station a while before the departure time, especially if you’re getting on from a major stations, because Indian stations can be confusing! Especially if you are not familiar with the language. They change the platform numbers like it’s no one’s business! So always make sure you check and keep checking your platform number. And if they do change it know that you will have to be ready for a mad dash over crowded connective bridges and through crazy crowds on platforms and also dodge coolies carrying ridiculous amounts of luggage. Also, you might get the chance to reenact the infamous DDLG scene, running alongside a moving train to get in, because being late for a train is not something you can entirely avoid when in India.

  • Bathrooms

A hole on the floor is all you’ve got!  You will also find a sink with the most difficult and complicated faucet you will ever have to use, especially on a moving train. You will need mad balancing skills to even wash your hands.

  • Hygiene

Say what now?

 Cleanliness for the most part is a concept that stands no meaning on these trains. It’s not dead right unbearable, but it’s definitely somewhere up there!

 But one thing I did notice is that certain trains that run through certain states are cleaner than others.

Now sitting here post(-ish) pandemic and with millions of hygiene practices drilled in to my brain, I genuinely can’t imagine how I survived.

  • Sleep

Hoping for a good night’s sleep? Yah keep hoping!! Especially if you get the top most berth. Getting some sleep with all the noise and making sure you don’t fall down, not the most comfortable place to fall asleep. But I surprisingly have the superpower to sleep well on Indian trains, and I prefer the top berth because it’s a little away from the chaos bellow and I even like the sounds and movement of the train.

  • Overcrowded

 Again, there is no such thing!!You reserved a seat and you’re under the impression that you’ll get to sit on the whole seat. Think again! You’ll get your average last minute ticket owners that wants a little space on your seat to beggars, floor sweepers to Hijras asking you for money( in some parts of the country) taking up a little bit of space. But they are all just a beautiful part of the experience.

  • Need a Last minute ticket?

 Hope you like sitting/ sleeping on the floor. I’ve done it a few times (not proud of it though, Okay, maybe a little for surviving). It comes handy when time means more than hygiene.

  • Make friends but keep an eye on anything fishy

Gruesomely long boring train rides can lead to some great lifelong friendships. I’ve had many such encounters and some were life altering. For instance a chance encounter with a Tibetan monk on a train from Agra to Jalpaiguri got me the chance to go to Bhutan back when tourism in Bhutan was not a thing.

But do keep in mind, everyone that is friendly is not your friend.

Yes there are certain trains that run along the great Indian railroad like the Royal Orient that offers its passengers a train ride of a life time with its fancy saloons and sleeping quarters and safe, over the top cuisine. And they are an experience of their own too. But I would choose the noisy second class and its bland vegetable biryani over and over again, because it’s an experience that will give you a taste of what India is really about. And trust me it’s a beautiful journey!

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