I have been travelling in India many times since my first trip back in 1994. I do enjoy the hustle and bustle of station life and the occasional sleeper train ride – especially if I am not in a hurry to get to my next destination! Trains in India can offer a real insight into Indian culture and hospitality too. It may not be the most comfortable of journeys, but it always feel like an adventure! The network is pretty extensive and prices are very reasonable.
Getting settled on the train
Busy Indian stations can be quite a culture shock for first timers on an India trip. The sheer volume of people at a station can be overwhelming in itself. It’s distressing to see vulnerable kids miraculously surviving and looking after each other at the train stations across India. As you pass by a beggar the urge is to dig into your pocket for change, but will this only temporarily alleviate their hunger or habit? Are they part of an organised ring and the money will line a ‘beggar-masters’ pocket and so keep them on the street? Many dilemmas, sights and sounds will surprise you as you travel the trains in India.
I always utilize the porters (dressed in red uniform). They earn a living by carrying your bags for a small fee, but also know the trains and platforms very well. They usually take you swiftly to the correct platform and often to the correct section of the right platform. Sleeper trains can be many carriages long and it’s a bit of a walk to find the right carriage. Your name (and age – ?) will be on a printout stuck to the carriage with all other passengers in your carriage.
Coping with the heat!
If it is blisteringly hot then 2nd class A/C sleeper carriage is the best way to travel, but the windows are often tinted and well scuffed so you’ll get a muted view of the urban and rural scenes as you go by. If it’s a cooler time of year then I forgo the A/C. You get barred windows in the non-A/C sleeper classes so you can buy snacks and drinks through the bars from vendors (best to have the right change in these circumstances) and take photos and watch the world go by, but the mosquitoes might fly in to join you for the night!! It’s not worth booking 1st class as you can only very rarely get a private berth for 2 (at the end of a carriage), unless you know someone with clout who can pull strings. The standard of 1st class is not radically different and so you still can’t buy privacy unless you book a luxury train journey at huge expense with one of the private luxury train companies such as the Palace on Wheels or the Maharaja Express.
Expect the unexpected!
Forget about western standards of privacy and personal space (or even health and safety) during your holiday in India! Carriages tend to be open plan with 2 or 3 tiers of sleeper beds against both walls and across the aisle. Toilet facilities are pretty basic and may not be too clean at the end of a long sleeper train ride. And then there is the morning throat clearing chorus! Loud and vigorous hacking and spitting in public is perfectly acceptable and considered part of the morning ablutions that will take place by the sinks and in the toilets at the end of the carriages.
It’s not unusual to see guys hurling luggage out of the carriage and then jumping off a moving train and in between stations too. There may be more luggage than luggage space and Indian families like to bring their own home-cooked snacks and packages of food that might be passed around at regular intervals and offered to strangers sharing the same carriage.