“Chai... Chaaii… GaramChaaaiii…” The metronomic call of masala chai grows closer. Louder. Once awake, I realise that I’m gently rocking on a pleather-covered sleeper berth in the overnight Mumbai Rajdhani Express.
I’m travelling from Bundi towards India’s most populous city. Though the Mumbai Rajdhani Express is India’s second fastest train – clocking a maximum speed of 140km/h and travelling at an average of 90km/h – it still takes over 13 hours to reach Mumbai.
The chaiwala’s many customers buy me enough time to unbundle myself from the off-white, non-fitted sheet that has come untucked during the night, count out seven rupees, and climb down from my second-tier berth. He pours 150ml of sweetened masala chai into a paper cup and serves it with a yellowed smile – evidence that he, too, loves masala chai.
The middle-aged woman in the berth below mine, pats her sleeper signalling that I ought to sit next to her rather than navigate the rungs single handed.
At the next stop, outstretched hands trade rupees for snacks – deep-fried pakoras, idlis with sambar, chapati, chips, Coca-Cola and perspiring water bottles – with the crowded train platform.
Saris, scarves and blankets are laid out onto the ground in wait for trains. Pages turn. Candy Crush levels are passed. Heavy heads slump against walls. Blurred feet shuffle past. Mothers hush babies to slumber. Food is placed in the centre of a circle of bare feet.
During my three-week train journey from northern to southern India, chaiwala calls replaced my morning alarm.
The 3 000-odd-kilometre odyssey traces the western section of India’s classic train route, across the Golden Triangle from New Delhi to Agra’s Taj Mahal and Jaipur’s seven gates. Then onwards to see the forts and intricately carved stepwells of Bundi and float along the lakes of Udaipur.
From Mumbai, a short flight to Goa is the starting point of the southern section of my sojourn towards the UNESCO World Heritage Centre of Hampi, the illuminated Mysore Palace and the Arabica coffee plantations of the Madikeri highlands.
Before, watching the Chinese fishing nets of Kochi (my final stop) hard at work.
And this is only a very small section of India’s 64 000 km-long rail network with its 7 083 stations, which is carved across the county like the veins of a leaf. Trains bypass cool hill stations, weave alongside tea plantations and orange groves, chug through deserts, hug coastlines, rush over rivers with bobbing bamboo coracles, cut into the foothills of mountains, cross state lines, trace a path through fort cities and speed through major urban hubs that connect to small villages.
With over 19 000 daily train journeys – 12 000 of which are commuter trains – India has the world’s fourth largest passenger rail network after The United States, Russia and China. It is a lifeline of the nation – providing about 1.3 million formal jobs. And then there are the chaiwalas, snack and drink sellers, bag porters, book store owners, newspaper sellers, garland twirlers.
The window seat gives me an insider’s glimpse into daily life in India. Families sleep between train tracks, men stand smoking alongside open cars doors as they wait for our train to pass, bent-back farmers plough fields, cows graze, clothes flap outside apartment windows, and men snooze in rickshaw tricycles parked along backroads.
The historic railway station of Chhatrapati Shivaji welcomes us to Mumbai – a city of Art Deco buildings, the Gateway of India, Dhobi Ghat (the world’s largest open-air laundry), Sassoon Docks and 22 million people, among other scenes from the pages of Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us. The city, like the rest of the country, draws a stark contrast between poverty and privilege.
A porter places my 13kg backpack on the red turban on his head, while carrying others on his back and in the clasp of his inner elbow. His turban cuts through disembarking and boarding passengers. It appears to be a scene cut from Slumdog Millionaire, except that no one is sitting atop or jumping between train carriages – that, I am told, only continues to be dramatised in films as it is illegal and carries heavy fines.
Perhaps on my next visit to India, I’ll try to undertake the country’s longest train journey aboard the weekly Vivek Express. It begins in northeast India in the town of Dibrugarh that is encircled by tea estates on Saturday mornings.
The journey stops 56 times across its 4 273km length. After 82 hours (the following Wednesday morning), it disembarks at the coastal city of Kanyakumari in the country’s southern-most reaches. I’ll be sure to book a window seat.
What to know
Book train tickets online with a Rs200 service fee and Rs100 registration fee; from the 24-hour rail office at Indira Gandhi International Airport; a ticketing agency such as www.12go.asia.com that includes a booking fee, or at the train station. Though you might have to endure long queues at the latter, stations in larger cities have International Tourist Bureau counters specifically for tourists. Train fares are calculated according to class and distance. A passenger list with corresponding berths is posted on departing train station notice boards or on the side of each carriage.
Bookings for long-distance trains open 120 days before departure so it’s best not to leave it to the day of travel, unless you don’t mind sharing a seat or standing in a 'general' second-class carriage on a short journey. Check availability online or in the annual Trains at a Glance timetable booklet (Rs70) for sale at newsstands and book stores.
A foreign tourist (FT) quota – a small number of seats solely reserved for foreigners – is set aside on 200-odd trains between popular destinations, which is helpful if the train is fully booked. These can be bought online up to a year before departure at Tourist Reservation Bureaus in large cities. Though it’s advisable not to book these limited FT places if General Quota seats remain.
The Waitlist (WL): While trains are often overbooked weeks ahead of time, many passengers never show up or cancel trips, so even if you only have a waiting list ticket, you’ll either get a seat or a refund. Track your status online (). Otherwise, the Tatkal system (meaning 'immediate' in Hindi) releases a certain number of tickets on key routes at 10:00 the morning before travel with a Rs75-300 surcharge.
Delays are announced via voice announcements and displayed on digital notice boards with updated departure times and platform numbers, as well as on the official Indian Railways website.
Refunds are available even after your train has departed, though with penalties.
Class: Identify your train by the yellow signboard found at the end of the carriage, indicating the train name and number. There are eight classes, though not all may be available on every train. First class in an air-conditioned carriage is called AC1 or 1A, the same goes for AC2 (two-tiered) and AC3. Adventurous budget travellers often choose sleeper class (SL) for overnight journeys or air-conditioned chair car (CC) for daytime routes.
Shatabdi Express is the premier daytime, express train, which is slightly more expensive but includes meals served at your seat, while the Rajdhani Express is the overnight equivalent. If you’ve got places to be and little time, undertake a direct long-distance journey abroad the Duronto Express between major hubs such as Mumbai, Calcutta, New Delhi, Lucknow and Jaipur.
Multi-day,luxurious tour trains – such as the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, Deccan Odyssey, The Golden Chariot and Mahaparinirvan Express – run on fixed dates and include on board accommodation, tours, entrance fees and meals.
Seats either face each other, in one direction, are set around tables or in two- or three-tiered sleeping berths.
On overnight trains, if budget allows always choose the soft overnight berths in an air-conditioned carriage, especially if you’ll explore your new destination the following day. The small price difference is worth every rupee. A lock or bicycle chain for your luggage will ensure a peaceful night.
Toilets: It’s always handy to have TP and wet wipes when travelling. In many cases, western-style and squat toilets open onto the tracks.
Stock up on food, snacks and drinks before you depart. Long-distance routes have catering services that sell vegetarian or non-vegetarian meals for an additional cost. While vendors walk the train carriages selling refreshments and snacks, others hop on at various stops. Locals buy snacks from the window, without leaving their seats. Pre-order food online from a restaurant via www.railrestro.com, which will be delivered at your chosen stop, time depending.
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