Marudhar Express departs for Jodhpur at 9:15 PM. But I failed to secure a seat or sleeper on that ride. My next option would be the earliest one the next day at 6:20 AM. I honestly thought I’d catch any seat that leaves that night from the Foreigner’s Ticket Booth at the Agra Fort Cantonment Train Station which is a small pink-and-yellow building. The ticket booth is located at the right side from the entrance; a separate building without much customers. But that deceptive calm had all the seats sold for departures within 12 hours. In fact, I was lucky to have gotten a 3rd class seat, i.e. a seat assigned in a non-AC car. And the assignations are nothing but numbers. It’s really a free-for-all, first-come, first served ride in that class. I hated the thought of worming my way through a crowd that had homeland advantage. They knew their platforms; they’re familiar with the train system, which, up to this day remains a big mystery to be. Despite my several encounters with Indian trains in several classes, they still intimidate me.
This ride would take 12 ½ hours, heading west, stopping by several stations: 19 stations, to be exact! I was clueless as to how this ride would play out. This covers 563 kilometers (350 miles). That wouldn’t be too painful, right? But I had valid concerns. What if I needed to use the loo, do I leave my baggage in an open compartment? Or do I have to carry them inside the WC with me (which is such a marvelously cramped space)? Will I find my seat back after my potty break? Or do I have to stand the remainder of the ride along the chaotic aisle? Solitary travels have their obvious disadvantages, you see.
Agra Fort Station. The Ticket Reservation booth (below) is located at a separate building from the right side of the entrance. The 1st counter is for foreigners only.
Sunday 4 AM. I woke up and hastily ate the left over Chinese style fried rice from my Saroj dinner. I wasn’t exactly hungry, but when I am on the move, I operate on the concept of “gassing up a vehicle”. My rickshaw driver picked me up and I handed him 70 rupees upon reaching Agra Fort Station. What greeted me was a surprise.
The lobby of this small station was a sea of people plopped down the floor, you had to carefully step over personal effects to get from one spot to the next! Yes, they were sleeping – camping it out – on the cold floor. The entrance gate was still shut so I had to find a spot at the lobby for myself. I sat beside an old lady who was snoozing beside a ticket counter. It was a fascinating experience, a Technicolor dream amidst a drowsy lot. Marudhar Express 4853 was expected to pull into the station at 5:55, and since it’s a major station, it will stay on for 25 minutes. Most other stops from this ride just take 2 minutes, except for Jaipur Junction which has a 15 minute wait.
At 5:30, the gate had opened and I stood to look for my platform. I had to find my platform number, car number, and seat number. Sounds easy? I could only wish! And since I was at the free-for-all section, I had to get ahead of others. That wasn't easy since signs in this part of the world weren't always present. Nor in English. By 6:30, I was starting to worry. No train arrived. Did I miss it? I kept asking people but they kept pointing me to different directions and platforms; it was driving me nuts.
ANXIETY AND DELAY
It turns out, Marudhar Express was running late. It came at 7:30 AM, and if 1 hour and 10 minutes wasn’t enough, the train waited forever to depart. Cargo? Harry Potter? Shahrukh Khan? The Prime Minister? We eventually pulled out of the station at 8:30 AM – a two-hour-ten-minute delay! I found my seat alright after shooing someone who occupied my assigned seat. Of course, everyone was looking at me as though I was from Planet X. Assigned seats only work in 2nd class AC seaters, not in 3rd class! But I stood my ground. I was the visitor, I have to follow “rules” – a semblance of civilization and order. Arrogant enough? LOL
Lobby of Agra Fort Station at 4 AM as people waited for the Marudhar Express' arrival at 5:55 AM (it came at 7:30 and left at 8:30).
People sleeping on the floor at the Agra Fort Station lobby at 4 AM.
Mad scramble to get to the right train car number.
Arrival at Jaipur Junction the next day.
This is actually my carriage - S5 - which is wonderfully non-AC, with free-for-all seats.
Long stop (25 minutes) in Jaipur, the state capital, and a pit stop among backpackers. Didn't like the place though because of the flurry of scams.
RAJASTHAN FROM A WINDOW
I had a window seat. Five people were cramped beside me where there should be 3. The seat across me had 7 including 3 children. I placed my sizable backpack between my legs. Gawd! Twelve hours in this position would test my endurance, but with the wind on my face and a parade of mystical sights before me, it was a breeze. I eventually settled into a calm ennui as the landscape gradually evolved into reddish, dusty, sandy land. We were moving away from the state of Uttar Pradesh to India’s biggest state, the magical land of Rajasthan which straddles India’s most inhospitable desert – the Great Indian Desert aka Thar Desert, among other deserts. Thar Desert represents a boundary between Pakistan and India and is, thus, unwelcoming by way of geographical features as well as political divisiveness. Rajasthan is also India’s largest state, comprising 10.41% of the whole land mass of the Indian Territory (see map below).
If it seemed like I would be miserable in this ride, it would be an erroneous statement. An hour from Agra, my phone roaming service had informed me that I'd been disconnected from my network, and that I should switch to manual. (Huh? How do I do that?) I lost signal from there. F__k! Will I lose my means of connection from home? I had my Indian sim, but my friends and family didn’t know the number, and informing the 300 listed numbers would be expensive. Two hours later, another SMS message came back, welcoming me to the state of Rajasthan. I heaved a sigh of relief. In India, roaming services change as you go from one state to another.
More than my cramped seat and intermittent phone signal, I was in awe of the rough, dusty and dry scenery before me. I was spellbound! Landscape had gradually changed; the number of dwellings had dwindled and vegetation became sparse. The soil appeared reddish too. There were sheeps grazing on arid lands. I saw camels, olive trees, etc. Cotton and tobacco are the state’s cash crops, but how do they grow in such conditions? Ditto wheat, barley, sugarcane, pulses and oilseeds.
My VIP seat: that's a rubber shoe I bought in Cambodia. The wind and my window seat to the majestic sights of Rajasthan.
Bobas Station - we didn't stop here.
This was a house near Bobas Station (below).
SAMBHAR LAKE AND ITS SALT BEDS
I am not sure how I fed myself during the ride. I knew I bought bread from Agra but I was starving by mid afternoon. There were ambulant food-wallahs selling roti, but I might as well eat paper. We reached Japiur, the state capital, and the train waited for 25 minutes.
By 3 PM, I saw one of the most fascinating views – Sambhar Lake, India’s largest inland salt lake sitting 96 kilometers southwest from Jaipur. From a sparsely populated land of dust, it was magical to view a virtual sea of white (see photo below). The lake is an extensive saline wetland with water depths varying from 24 inches to 10 feet. People harvest salt from this region, and this rail track I was on was constructed by the British even before India's Independence from the Brits in 1947. It is a spectacular place to see. Heck, even the Mahabharata referenced it as a part of the kingdom of a demon king named Brishparva. The same lake is India's largest saline lake and made Rajasthan the third largest salt producing state in India. It produces 196,000 tons of clean salt every year. That’s a lot more salt than Infanta, Pangasinan’s production in a year.
AN EVENING WELCOME
At 5:35 PM, my back was already aching and stiff from the limited mobility as we passed through Degana Junction. A little more than 3 hours later, we finally reached our destination, and Marudhar’s final stop – the Blue City of Jodhpur! It was 8:45 PM. Bright lights lit the platforms as though Bollywood number was about to commence anytime. Jai ho! The concrete was free from litter and, unlike Delhi or Agra, no one was sleeping on the ground floor! It was beautiful! On a different hour, things could be different. There were no immediate departures at that time. Besides, Jodhpur had a lot more space, marbled and shiny, for us who sleep on floors.
As for my accommodation and destination that night, that would be another adventure!
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Sambhar Lake, India's largest inland salt lake (above and below).
Sambhar Lake's aerial view. Check out the rail track which is a pre-Independence British construction. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia.
Sparsely occupied dry lands, usually beside the rail tracks, painted in bright pastels.
Train stops from Agra Fort Station to Jodhpur: Agra Fort, Idgah Agra Junction, Achhnera Junction, Bharatpur Junction, Nadbai, Kheril, Mandawar Mahwa Road, Bandikui Junction, Dausa, Jaipur Gandhinagar, Jaipur Junction, Phulera Junction, Sambhar Lake, Nawa City, Kuchaman City, Makrana Junction, Degana Junction, Merta Road Junction, Gotan, Jodhpur Junction.
A salt mining area around Sambhar Lake. Beautiful white fields amidst arid dusty lands.