27 Hours: A Tale of Two Trains
When in India, the trains are a great way to get around the country. Faster than buses, more convenient than planes and cheaper than both, they run frequently over the entire country. They have only one issue: a sixth of the world’s population are vying for tickets, making them rather difficult to acquire, especially when plans are being made at most a day in advance. When lucky, you can score some Sleeper Class tickets, the best cost-to-comfort ratio way to travel.
Unfortunately, we were not always so fortunate. Two very contrasting 27-hour train rides ensued.
Kolkata to Chennai
Class: 3AC – one above Sleeper
Cost: 1735 rupees ($35)
Scheduled Departure time: 19:00
Scheduled Arrival time: 22:00 the next day
Hospet to Ahmedabad
Class: General Admission
Cost: 310 rupees ($6)
Scheduled Deparure time: 03:00
Scheduled Arrival time: 06:25 the next day
We had our first Darjeeling Limited experience a bit early than expected, finding ourselves not yet on the platform for the scheduled departure time. We had not anticipated what condensing 1 billion people into an area the size of the backdoor shed does to the traffic, and our backup hour had disappeared all too rapidly. We made it to the platform only to discover our run had been rather unnecessary, with the train delayed for an hour and 40 minutes. Puffing, we sat down and waited for our lovely air-conditioned carriage and own bed.
After arriving three hours early to ensure our weary bodies didn’t have to endure another late night Stawell Gift, our train managed to steam into station on time, one of its only perks. We boarded general admission, not quite sure what we were getting ourselves into. With general admission, you have no reserved seats and it’s basically an overpopulated game of sardines. We were already ready for bed, yet knew we might have to remain vertical for an extended period of time.
Train 1 – 7-8pm
We continued to wait on the platform, having our picture taken by every second local and no doubt having our ugly mugs put up on many a Facebook profiles.
Train 2 – 3-4am
After boarding, I immediately deposited the watery contents of my bowels. This was going to be a rough ride. After our puppy dog eyes failed to seduce the train conductor to allow us to sleep in any of the soon-to-be-occupied beds in Sleeper class and not wanting to even face actual general admission yet, we set ourselves up between two carriages, straight above the couplings. With bags taking about most of the already lacking space, we lay/sat down, knees to chin stuff on the floor hoping to catch some shut eye and deal with any problems in the morning.
Train 1 – 8-9pm
Towards the end of hour 2, our train arrived. We got on and were given sheets and pillows for our beds. We duly tucked into our $3 bottle of Old Monk Rum to celebrate the imminent journey, full of optimism.
Train 2 – 4-5am
Indian railways are not known for their precision construction, which left us to be continually and rudely shaken awake in a manner Outkast would be proud of. The nearby toilets didn’t help, assaulting our olfactory receptors any time a local felt the call of nature, or more likely last nights chicken tikka masala. Lacking any energy to change our circumstances or even any hope they could possibly improve, we persisted.
Train 1 – 9-10pm
The only issue we were currently facing at this stage was a lack of rum. But with a mild buzz on we were happy to wile away the night playing cards. Dinner, which we had ordered earlier, was served to us in our beds and several chais were drunk.
Train 2 – 5-6am
Ironically, the nine bottles of rum we were now carrying firstly held no drinking appeal to us (shocking! I know) and were not adding any comfort to our bags being used as pillows. Sleep was still elusive.
Train1 – 10-11pm
With the hour growing late, we retreated to our luxurious vinyl bunks and fell into a deep and restful slumber, at least a good 10 hours of sleep ahead of us.
Train 2 – 6-7am
Charlie and I ninja-ed our way onto Sleeper class, while Jude insisted he was ‘settled’ in the carriage junction. We jumped into two unoccupied beds and hoped to catch an hour or two of sleep before the entire train awoke. A veritable orchestra of hocking, spitting, snoring, sniffing, coughing, phone ringing, phone answering, ‘chai or coffee,’ and train station loudspeaker announcements ensued, and I soon discovered I was too tired to sleep.
Train 1 – 11-Midnight
Train 2 – 7-8am
The orchestra had erupted into a cacophony of sound and voices and had even developed a light show. It had become a delhi marketplace. This was the poorest way to discover that Indians are early risers and now sleep was almost entirely off the cards.
Train 1 – Midnight-5am
T2 – 8-1pm
Against all odds we actually managed to get some patchy periods of sleep and Jude had also found a bed at some point. Just after midday we were rudely awoken by the people whose beds we had been sleeping in as they boarded the train. The conductor, now all but completely fed up with us, ejected us to cattle class, where for the second time I had number 2s that resembled number 1s, and compared to these toilets, the Sleeper ones had been five star.
Train 1 5-9am
We were woken from our dreaming at around 8:30 as we were brought the breakfast we had ordered the night before. Literally breakfast in bed, what more can a man ask for!
Semi-delirious from lack of sleep, we attempted to establish ourselves in General Admission. Having packs and bags made this especially difficult. The only reasonable amount of space we could find amongst the sea of people was a little alcove between the two toilets. We proceeded to stack our bags there, which created some kind of makeshift chair. We took hour long shifts with one person sitting on the bags and the other two standing, mostly acting as doormen for the toilet. None of us were comfortable and we lacked any reasonable space for any time-killing activities. Food, which was previously in such abundance, no longer seemed to be sold and now we were growing hungry. The heat was now also starting to make itself known. While on the move, it wasn’t so bad. But when we pulled into a station and a few people, including me at one stage, utilised the toilets, the sizzling tracks would then cook everything that landed on them, vaporising the excrement straight back up towards us. It continually smelt like warm, sweaty diarrhoea. We had become the definition of broken men and had moments where we were ready to just jump, tuck and roll out of our moving prison.
Train 1 – 9-1pm
The morning was passed playing cards, backgammon and watching episodes of Avatar. The A/C was killing it, we were in our own perfect sub-climate. We discovered the noodle man who sold 30 rupee boxes of noodles that had no right to be that delicious.
Train 2 – 5-9pm
I must have fallen asleep on the bags at some stage because I awoke to discover that while I’d been comatose, my salivary glands had been attempting to flood the train. My straining belly couldn’t figure out if it was hungry or had absolutely no incling to ingest any more food. I took charge, told my belly to suck it up, and went in hunt of food. But of course now that I wanted it it was harder to find than a stiff drink in the dry states of India. After wandering up and down the train a bit and waiting patiently for the man yelling ‘biriyani, biriyani,’ I managed to grab dinner: a serve of plain rice with barley enough sauce to feed the mice scurrying about my feet. Never have my tastebuds been so unstimulated. A trip to the toilet rapidly ensued.
T1 – 1-4pm
More of the same from this morning, with a little chess thrown in. The chai and tomato soup men were regularly utilised. We still had not encountered that get-me-the-hell-off-this-train kinda feeling. We were still happy kicking about.
T2 – 9-Midnight
Sick of having up to seven of our human rights violated in the squabble of humans we moved ourself to the end of a sleeper carriage, once again finding ourselves surrounded by toilets, but, thankfully, having a space of floor to sit down on. We decided that we would still need to be more tired to actually manage sleep so we read for a while and put down a Valium or two to really knock us out. Although we were lying in filth, mostly other people’s, we were surprising comfortable and actually managed an hour or two of sleep.
Hours 22 to 24
T1 – 4-7pm
An epic game of upsies, downsies was played and I’m pretty chuffed to say I came away as the victor. We then placed our order for dinner and had a late afternoon nap.
T2 – midnight-3am
A kindly man had spotted and taken pity on us and our unfortunate position. He roused us out of our tired stupor and showed us the ways of sleeping on the floor between the bunks. This was far superior and more spacious than any of our earlier attempts. I am happy to report that this was the the most comfortable floor sleeping of the trip and almost all three hours were spent unconscious.
Train 1 – 7-10pm
Our dinner arrived and we promptly sat down to watch in with an accompanying movie, after which we returned to bed and drifted off to some music. This really was too easy.
Train 2 – 3-6am
Most of this was actually spent sleeping. At around 5.30, half an hour before we were scheduled to arrive, we were shaken awake by the train inspector asking for our tickets. Dazed, confused and having zero of Matthew McCounaghey’s charisma, we attempted to explain our situation, heavily playing the sympathy card. He wanted to fine us for being on a sleeper carriage without a sleeper ticket. He pulled out a calculator and a large book, we knew we were beaten, our heavily reduced mental capacities couldn’t compete with that. Pretty pissed off, we copped the 500 rupee ($10) fine on the chin and awaited our arrival.
For those of you who are switched on, both of the trains should have arrived by now. But as so often happens with indian trains, we were running late. One cannot tell if it was because a cow was in the way or the train got lost (yes this actually happens), but we now had an unknown period of time still to go to our destination.
We didn’t even realise we had been running late until we woke up to get off. The one downside of 3AC was now realised, every man and his dog working on the train came passed us to ask for a tip. We got through the ordeal and got off the train, albeit three hours late, refreshed and ready for a four-hour local bus.
We continued to brood over how close we’d come to getting away with our schemes until the train finally crawled into the station two hours late. We were feeling caked in filth and in dire need of a shower and a sleep, but we still had an 8 hour bus to take to our final destination. Didn’t have to tip though!!