STA Travel CRM Executive Carmen Bergne share some top tips for taking the train in India.
We’ve all been there, sitting on the grubby tube or train on a wet autumn day, heading into work and hating the extra few people who’ve squeezed on for making you feel like a sardine in a slightly damp, steamy pod.
Well, you ‘aint seen nothing yet! Rail travel in India is like no other. Home to one of the world’s largest rail networks, the tracks you’ll travel are stories in themselves. Never has the saying ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey’ been more relevant than when you’re travelling in India.
If you’re planning on taking the train in India (and you definitely should) there are several things you’ll need to be prepared for, here’s the lowdown on what to expect.
If you take the train in India, know this…
“Psst! Laura, the man in the opposite bunk is staring at me”
Well ‘Laura’, I’m afraid you’d better just deal with it. In India, it isn’t considered rude to stare and it’s more than likely you’ll find that whatever your doing, at any time of day or night, is intensely interesting to everyone else around you.
There are a couple of ways to deal with this: enjoy the limelight and pretend you’re a popstar, take the opportunity to stare right back, or don your sunnies, pull the scarf over your head, close your eyes and listen to ‘All by Myself’ on repeat.
You’ll need to book in advance
Train travel is a hugely popular and cost effective way to get around India for travellers and locals, and due to high demand it’s likely you’ll come across large queues before getting to the ticket office – only to then find tickets sold out weeks ago.
Booking in advance is easy, and will ensure you don’t miss your train, giving you time to plan your interchanges if your train isn’t direct too.
You’ll Need to Switch to ‘Stretchy Time’
Having said that, despite booking in advance, arriving in plenty of time and being generally efficient in every possible way: there’s something you should definitely know… Indian trains don’t run against a normal clock, they run on what the locals like to dub “stretchy time” ie. When the train get here, it gets here, regardless of scheduling, clocks and any other time measuring paraphernalia.
You could be waiting anything from 10 mins to 10 hours (seriously). So come prepared, pack your toilet roll, a pillow and plenty of reading material at the top of your bag so you’re prepped for long delays.
Who Run the World…err, Cows.
A common cause of stretchy time and another ‘must know’ fact about train travel – in fact any kind of travel in India – is that there, cows rule. Yes, you heard me correctly. As the most divine animal in the Hindu religion, cows are revered throughout India. No restrictive fields and chilly troughs for these glorious beasts, oh no, cows live and move wherever they want, so if a cow wants to take a little rest in the middle of a busy road the will – because they can, and as you can imagine, this can create quite a chaotic scene for those trying to get from A to B.
You will see them wandering the streets, lounging placidly next to and inside of temples and occasionally, stopping trains. Now, they aren’t developing opposable thumbs like the cats from the scary Cravendale ad, but they definitely hold God-like status.
The difference between classes
There are eight classes of travel on the railway. How you choose to travel depend on two factors – distance and your own boldness. Here are the highlights: AC1 and AC2 are air-conditioned booths with beds, linen is provided and it’s a little more expensive, but is best for overnight journeys.
In AC3 you have a bunk at night, during the day it gets quite crowded, or sociable, depending on the way you look at it. Sleeper Class is also available; this will be a much more crowded and has no privacy so go prepped. Executive Class and Chair Class are best for day journeys and you also get meals included in your fare. Second Class is a complete social occasion, you’ll find at least 5 people sharing your seat and seats vary from plastic to wooden.
Keep calm and drink Chai
Everyone loves a good cuppa, but the train networks in India are the perfect opportunity to discover the ultimate hot drink – delicious Chai tea in clay cups. ‘Chaiwalas’ (tea boys) jump on the train at every stop and run through the carriages with urns on their backs and stacks of clay pots in their hands doling out this freshly boiled hot milk and spiced Chai concoction. So sit back, relax and enjoy (but be warned it’s deliciously addictive).
Other food and the people who sell it
If you aren’t in a class serving pre booked meals there is plenty of opportunity to try loads of different foods. At every stop along your journey, people selling food of every size and type often accompany the Chaiwalas selling their produce. You’ll find that all you need to do is hang your hand out of a train window and someone will thrust some delicious, unidentified snack in your palm in return for just a few rupees. It’s also not uncommon to be offered a taste of other travellers snacks – as a westerner you’ll attract a lot of attention.
Trains also often have extensive kitchens where you can buy hot snacks and meals.
Sorry boys, this one’s for the girls
In some of the large cities throughout India, the public trains have female only carriages. You’ll soon discover this is a wonderful luxury, especially when it’s hot, stuffy and you don’t fancy being stuck in some hairy armpit as you travel!
Snuggle with your passport
Pickpockets are rife throughout the trains and very adept at stealing your passports, phones and wallets. Whilst your locked bag should be fine it’s a good idea to make sure you keep your most important items very close, especially whilst you’re sleeping. So use them as a pillow or sleep with a bumbag type documents holder strapped to you.
Sit at the door and enjoy the view
Passages with doors on either side link carriages throughout the train – you may have boarded through one. On long open stretches of rail, you can take a seat at one of these open doors and enjoy a completely unobstructed view of Indian landscapes sweeping past you, while getting some fresh air – just go careful!
Join in the debate
Forget books and snuggling up with your iPod headphones stuffed firmly in your ears, the train is a great opportunity to hear more about India and chat with locals. Enjoy heated topical debates as seat neighbours extol the virtues of various parliamentary elections or redesign the national waterways between Delhi and Jaipur.