Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Long Ride From Kolkata to Delhi - Bewildering Indian Train Journey

Indian Railways (IR) is government-owned and is responsible for the operation of the country’s railway transport, as overseen by the Ministry of Railways (headed by Manmohan Singh). Introduced in the country in 1853, it now has more than 64,215 kilometers of track and 7,083 stations, carrying over 30 million passengers daily. It is the world’s second largest employer of utility and commercial workers.
Considering the vastness of the Indian landmass, it is nothing short of spectacular that most of India have trains servicing them, except for the Sikkim and Meghalaya states. This makes traveling around the country convenient since most tourist sites have train connections (except the hill station of Munnar, the outer reaches of the mountains, as well as the embattled state of Kashmir).


These train seats are roughly classified into the following: First Class AC (as expensive as airline seats with provision for blankets, big spaces and private coupes); AC Two-Tier (individual berths comprising 2 vertical tiers, with 4 of these sleepers per couch); AC Three-Tier (3 vertical tiers, the top berth usually cramped, not recommended if you need adequate space to sit or stretch your arms; claustrophobic space; the best seat is the lower berth, since you don’t have to keep climbing up your “bed”); 

First Class Non-AC (very rare, in fact I haven’t tried this one); AC-Three Tier Economy (non AC, no bed sheets provided); AC Car Chair (AC seats in rows of 5, usually for day travels); Seater Class (similar to the Car Chair but with no AC, less comfortable bench-style seats); Sleeper Class (the most common seats, less space, non-AC); UR (cheapest, entry into the train is guaranteed but seats aren’t as these are very crowded; tickets bought for these seats have to be used within 24 hours, a last recourse when you need to catch another train elsewhere and you couldn’t get any seats from the regular trains when you need to go).

Trains can also be classified as 1st class, 2nd class (cheaper than the 1st class, AC but with lesser space between berths), 3rd or Sleeper Class. I've tried most of these trains, except for the 1st class which I refuse to avail. Why would I purchase one for an amount that could buy me a plane ticket to my destination?
Train travels are adventures in themselves. For the most part, the whole system is a bewildering cacophony of sounds, sights and nerve-wracking motion on congested platforms and train cars. Though I’ve re-read general notes on train travels in India (I even bought the “Trains at a Glance” guidebook available at most Indian train station bookstands), I was just out of my wits following couch numbers, train names, platform locations, coach and seat numbers, and finally, if I am taking the right train moving towards the right direction. To cut the long story short, I am always overwhelmed and intimidated by most of my train rides.

This was one of the reasons why I suddenly decided to join my friend Junaid from Kolkata to Delhi. I was supposed to stay for another day before taking the train to the capital Delhi, but I honestly didn’t know where to start. Where do I buy my train ticket? What the hell is a tatkal? Why did they accept my money and booking when there supposedly isn’t any available seat for my planned train? What the heck is going on here? I was suddenly caught in the maelstrom not quite removed from the Twilight Zone.

Howrah Railway Station in Kolkata

Kolkata to Delhi covers a distance of 1,461 kilometers (around 900 miles)! Thus travels are only feasible by air (which takes approximately 2 hours) or by train. Buses aren’t practical. We purchased 2AC seats (2-tier, AC, side berths) at 1,800 rupees each (around $40 or PhP1,740). Kolkata has 2 major stations for long distance travels: the Sealdah and the Howrah. Ours was to depart from the Howrah station.

After a filling pizza dinner, we rushed to checkout from our hotel, then we hailed a taxi to take us to Howrah. Our train was to depart at 7:50PM. Junaid hired a porter because he had all these bulky baggages that were unusually heavy, I could hardly lift them 2 inches from the ground. We scampered and moved through sinewy crowds. I didn’t really know much as to our direction. I just followed. My friend had done this hundreds of times before.


Once again, the whole transit was a blur, I eventually found myself inside a couch. Junaid took the lower berth, so I didn’t have a choice but to climb up my loft. I was of course a little pissed off why I had to take the “bed” above. I hated climbing up there. Once the train was moving, I laid down and kept to myself. Tantrums are annoying. You get into its moment even though you know you’re not supposed to. By 9PM, Junaid reached from his berth below to nudge me. I felt better and conciliatory. I was the “guest” after all, I should behave. All this time, some food-wallahs and chai-wallahs were roaming in steady succession, shouting in ear-splitting fashion, “Ccch-ai!!!!!”… “Ccch-ai!!!” We bought “dinner” – the delectable, ubiquitous dhal, rotti and something Junaid said was a “pickle”. He paid for the meal and wouldn’t accept my money. I tried to masticate through what to my taste buds was an unpalatable gastronomy.

Railway platform at the Howrah Station in Kolkata taken at 7:20PM.

I wasn't sure if taking photos would be considered rude so I didn't use the flash, thus this quality.

My friend Junaid took me with him to Delhi. We met in Dhaka, Bangladesh and crossed the horrific Benapole-Haridaspur border.

Our 2AC sleeper train to Delhi.

This would encapsulate my transient Indian life, straddling 25 hours until we reach Delhi. Though I was able to sleep sometime before midnight, it was light. I’d find myself awake when a whistle blows. At 6:30AM, after visiting the couch’s bathroom for my cramped morning ritual (nope, you can’t shower there – toilet is a small cubicle with limited running water and nothing else), I was greeted by a friendly smile on my way back to my seat. What followed was 2 hours of animated conversation with an amorous mother who was curious about me. She kept referring to his grown-up son (seated beside her) who worked as “supervisor at a molasses pumps”. I could swear she was talking about a 12 year old instead of the grown up 28 year old beside her.

It would have to be one of the most endearing characteristics in the mechanics of an Indian family; that a son or a daughter will always be “little children” in the eyes of their mother (or father) regardless of how grown up they've become.

For the remainder of the day, Junaid and I would just chat – college, family, girl friends, sex mores among Indians (quite interesting topic haha); travels, etc. In between chats, we would sleep again, buy cups of tea, and I would sneak out of my couch and head towards the entrance/exit doors to see the countryside we were lazily passing by. No, there’s no idyllic view to be appreciated from our windowless AC berths, which really defeats some of the joys of train travel.

The few snaps I got from my moving train had been not up to par, but they were treasures to me. These were ribald pieces of stolen moments from a magical land! The thought somehow overwhelmed, but I was riding a dream.

Our coach compartment, consisting of 6 beds. Our spaces were the ones located at the other side of this space, just beside the aisle. Mine was the upper berth, so I had to keep climbing up and down from it.

This is how our train car looked like inside. It has assigned seats, as well as car numbers, etc. You have to get to the correct car or else, you'll be standing by the door until your next stop - and this long-distance train had very few stops - as it traveled for almost 25 hours, instead of the expected 23.

A view of a river as our train rushed over a bridge. This was taken through a heavily stained glass window at the train entrance, before I learned it was alright to open the door on a moving train. Love these "inferior shots" because I'm reminded of how desperate I was to see the countryside. There were no windows inside our couch.

This was a common scenery - miles and miles of Rape Plants (aka "colza"), a plant of the mustard family. I remembered such scenery all throughout my train rides in Europe where "rape plants" are endemic. Check this link from an English farm - http://www.flickr.com/photos/42137324@N08/4579266901/lightbox/.

By 6 PM, I was restless. It dawned on me it was going to stretch much further than the expected 23 hours. By 9:15 PM, I was already reading station signs as we passed through them. Yamuna Station. 9:23, all Allahabad. 9:43, Subedarganj. 10:00, Bam Hrauli, Manauri, Mandharganj, then Kanpur! When we finally reached Delhi Junction Railway Station (aka Old Delhi Station - not the New Delhi Railway Station), we took a prepaid taxi to the southern district of the city called Chhatarpur, just beside a residential complex called Tivoli Garden Resort. Nope, this isn't the district in the state of Madhya Pradesh (south of Andhra Pradesh). This is a zone in South Delhi, far away from the hustle of the touristy capital.

If you've seen one of those ruminating movies where the protagonists stick their heads out of the moving train to feel the rush of the wind against their hair, well, guess what? I did that too - with my camera even. It wasn't safe so I wouldn't recommend it.

On a road towards Delhi the morning after we departed Kolkata. Now count those empty container drums - 17 containers - being pulled by a lanky man on his bicycle.

Delhi Junction Railway Station - our stop in Delhi. Now it has to be mentioned that Delhi has several train stations. Near this station (see the map below) is the New Delhi Railway Station, India's main railway and the country's 2nd busiest station. Nizamuddin Station is south of Delhi Junction. So better check your terminal stop 1-2 hours before arrival.


We made it to Delhi. If felt like forever. I stood in front of a secluded street in a well appointed area far from the bustle of Delhi. I shivered from the chilly air. Novembers in the capital can be nippy. Winter was starting to cloak its icy breath all over the cosmopolitan jungle. And I’d never forget as I watched the flickering streetlamp. Particulates randomly floated around and scattered through the beam of light, and the air smelled musty.

I remembered a piece from New York Times a few years back.

By mid-November, sharp, cool winters, like previous winters, envelop this city with a thick dirty haze (bluish in daytime) settling across much of the capital, causing sore throats, colds and other respiratory illness. 
Writer Sanjoy Hazarika reported, “Airline flights are often delayed by smog on the runways, and drivers are often forced to switch on their headlights in daytime to avoid accidents. The city's haze is caused by severe pollution, much of it from factories and power plants and from the exhaust pipes of cars, motorcycles and scooter rickshaws. There is much natural dust. Soot is caused by wood stoves and the burning of leaves, coal and cow dung by poor people who cannot afford other fuel.”
Two of every five residents suffer from lung, liver or genetic disorders due to highly-polluted air in the capital city of 14 million, the privately-run Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute concluded. Was I to become part of the statistics?

Like a pinch in the privates, I was reminded that I indeed was in Delhi. A few days later, I was already sporting my own version of a sore throat, hoarse voice and an annoying paroxysm of cough.
But I kept my prayers. I was grateful. It wasn't the notorious Delhi Belly!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Delhi Junction Railway Station (aka Old Delhi Railway Station) was built by the British in the style of the red colored fort, before independence. It was built in 1900 and opened to public in 1903. These days, it services about 200,000 commuters and tourists from 200 trains on a daily basis. Identification of such trains - for tourists like me - can be daunting. 

Many of these train carriages don't carry English signs. Since this is the Old Delhi area, Chandni Chowk (the notoriously congested local market space), the Red Fort (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Jama Masjid (the national mosque for Muslim Indians) are nearby. In fact, to get to the more central New Delhi area, you can take the metro from Chandni Chowk station. There are pre-paid taxis just outside. Don't risk the tiresome haggle! This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's ekabhishek and flickr's Johannes Bader.

Long train ride from Kolkata to Delhi covering a distance of 1,461 kilometers or 900 miles. This took us 25 hours, arriving in Delhi at around 10 PM.

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