All Aboard the Rajdhani Express!

I’m a reluctant Michael Portillo fan. I should hate him, he’s a Tory. A Thatcherite at that – yuk. But his rail travel shows are just so damn watchable. So when I eventually convinced Mohammed to take the train from Delhi to Mumbai (well, Delhi to Sawai Madhopur then on to Mumbai) I was delighted. It would be our first overnight train experience, dipping our toes in to the wonderful world of overlanding. I was so, so excited.

You must book your trains in advance, online, months before you go. Otherwise, you run the risk of not being able to get anywhere, and certainly anywhere fast. Behemoth Indian trains are built to take thousands of passengers in one go, but it still doesn’t meet the vast demand from locals and tourists. Trouble is, the Indian Rail website is a bona fide nightmare, particularly for non-Indians. Thankfully a fella from Bhopal called Raj has an entire business dedicated to helping foreigners buy train tickets. He procured our tickets, and kept us updated throughout the entire trip. 10/10 hero.

So, let’s start from the very beginning (a very good place to start). We rocked up to Delhi’s Nizamuddin station a bit frightened about what we’d find – would people mug us for our suitcases the minute we arrived? Or would we get separated in a crowd crush? Fate had given us plenty of time to find out, as our train, the August Kranti Rajdhani, was delayed by 90 minutes. By Indian standards, that’s really not bad. Off to the first class waiting room.

Now, Michael Portillo had told me that the meals on Indian trains and at station platforms are something else. I’m all about the food, and always hungry, so bought myself a ‘light lunch’ to pass the time.

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Yes, this is what constitutes a ‘light lunch’ round here.

What a great combination. Hot roti, spicy daal, veg curry and a massive portion of rice to finish. Oh, India, I would die for your food. Better still, there was free WiFi in the lounge, and the telly was bashing out some Bollywood music videos. All this for the price of 10 rupees (10p). I’d say I’d found heaven, but the toilets were too smelly for my liking.

Our train pulled up to the platform. The departure board displayed ‘BOARDING’ in bright red text, the alarming font colour definitely doing its job. Pushing through a crowd of folks coming off another train, and lugging our cases down multiple sets of steps, we reached the platform.

My head turned from left to right. All I could see was train. The coaches faded into the horizon. Somewhere along this ridiculously long locomotive were our seats – the question was, where? We started towards the front of the train, the carriage numbers not seeming to change or get closer to our coach. Thankfully, the porters and kiosk owners see the Rajdhani rock up every day, so they can tell you exactly where the coach stops. Mohammed had to ask about 4 of them, before I felt sure we were going in the right direction.

Eventually, ‘C-2’ came into view. Both of us heaved a sigh of relief, lifted our luggage with a groan, and stepped on. The train was teeming with life – families playing with one another, women chatting on the phone, and commuters snoring loudly. Once the aisles were clear of bags and protruding feet, chaiwallas strided up and down, loudly offering up cups of tea. “Oooh, yes, that sounds good. Let’s get one of those”, I suggested to Barbs, not particularly concerned whether he actually wanted a cuppa or not. We’re British, so I assume the answer will always be yes.

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It’s amazing what 10 rupees will get you.

That’s not all that was on offer. Before we came on this trip, I was worried we’d get hungry on the long journeys, borne from more than 20 years of refusing to pay the extortionate price for tea on the trains back home. India, as it always is, was a completely different ball game. Sipping our spicy, gingery tea, we watched as men passed, flogging biryanis, chickpeas, Maggi noodles, soup, crisps, chocolates, and yet more thalis. I felt sad that I’d already eaten, because had I been a little less full, could have eaten so much more.

Though the train didn’t speed through India, it was both clean and comfortable. With iPod tunes and good conversation, our 5-hour journey seemed to whizz by, the sun setting over the wheat fields of Haryana. Things only got a bit dicey towards the end, when our journey was extended by another hour. As my bladder began to give way, I wished I hadn’t drunk all that diuretic tea. The European tourists sat opposite us had come back from the loos with horror stories, and now, it was apparent I would have to brave them myself.

Climbing over the sleeping man next to me, I worked my way towards the back of the coach. On the plus side, there was no queue. I knew why. Nobody queues for a terrible toilet, unless you’re really desperate, which I was.

My eyes clocked the English text on the door to my left. ‘Western Toilet’ it said. A solid first step. I opened the door, but the stench was overwhelming, my eyes burning from the sheer amount of urea that must have entered them. Also, there was no toilet seat, the icing on the shitty cake. I don’t care how desperate I am, I’m not using that.

I returned to the gangway for a rethink. This train still has about an hour to go, plus who knows how long the ride to our hotel will be? I don’t think I can wait that long. However, that toilet is truly awful. I could look for another loo in a different carriage, but it probably wouldn’t be much better. I looked to the door to my right – “Indian toilet”. Let’s see how this one is.

With a great deal of apprehension, I folded back the gaudy-patterned screen door. A window was open – well, at least it’s been fumigated. I sighed and looked down at the squat pad on the floor. It was marginally better than the Western one, and just about bearable if I pulled my polo neck over my face. Thank god internet memes taught me how to Slav squat.

As I squatted there, wondering what my life had come to, I finally understood what Mohammed meant when he said skinny jeans were the best bottoms (pun intended) for toilet holes. Any other trousers would have been sodden by the gross puddle on the floor, but skinny jeans cling to your legs for dear life, meaning they came away from the whole experience unscathed.

Half an hour or so later, our train decelerated, coming into Sawai Madhopur. We went to the gangway to wait for our stop, by this point very eager to leave the train. This guy was even more keen.

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I’m pretty sure we were going at least 40 MPH, but he was still texting beside an open door.

Train pulling into a stop, we practically leapt off the train, and headed for our Ranthambore hotel.

48 hours later, we were back at the station. To our utter shock, the August Kranti Rajdhani rolled in bang on time. Sattu, our guide, nearly fainted, but thankfully he stayed upright enough to help us into our carriage. We only had two minutes to board, so we didn’t have a lot of time to say goodbye. Probably for the best, since I’m rubbish at them.

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The train at at Mumbai Central. Stolen from Google.

As it’s a 13 hour journey from Sawai Madhopur to Mumbai, Mohammed and I had opted to go first class. We knew we wouldn’t meet as many interesting people or fellow travellers, but in this case, comfort overtook company. So antisocial were we that we’d hoped for a private cabin, but we found ourselves sharing with a nice Gujarati family, which is the next best thing.

We said a pleasant hello and settled in to the cabin. There were four beds – the family were 2 adults and 2 young children, and put one parent and child in one bunk, another parent and child in the other. Barbs and I took the other bunks. You get to the top bunk by the world’s narrowest staircase at the end of the cabin. There’s a small table to put your belongings – shared between all 6 of us – and some plug sockets. The pillows and blankets were all ready for us.

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Mohammed testing the comfort levels.

Barbs found another Gujarati friend in the First Class steward, who made sure that we ate a hearty meal as soon as we boarded. Already eaten? Uncle didn’t care. I can honestly say this was the best customer service I’ve ever seen. America can learn a thing or two from India.

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Yum. More daal chawal.

So this is the first class experience. I felt like a VIP. They even left the food out in the corridor so we could sneak a roti or 5 if we got peckish.

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Not easy carrying soupy daal around on a train that rocks as much as this one, but he made it look that way.

I smiled at the Gujarati mum, who smiled back. They both spoke English well (as most Indians do – I suppose that’s what centuries of colonialism does) but sometimes it was easier for Barbs to flip into his mother tongue, so I let him do most of the talking. Our travelling companions had just been for a holiday in Agra, seeing the Taj Mahal and all the other wonderful landmarks UP (Uttar Pradesh) has to offer. Now, they were on their way home to the city of Valsad. It’s more than 1,000 kilometres on the train, which by European standards is nuts, but in India it’ll only take about 12 hours. What a country.

Mohammed rummaged in his bag, and dug out a packet of mysterious drugs Manu had given him for a headache. Though the ingredients were in English, we couldn’t work out what was in it, and didn’t want to risk getting quizzed by the authorities on arrival. “Give it here”, said the dad, laughing at our confusion. “I’m a doctor”. Without hesitation, he informed a grateful Mohammed the exact dosage, how often to take it, and what the side effects could be. How wonderful the world is sometimes – the people you meet simply by chance could literally save your life. In India, we’d found people to be very hospitable and helpful overall – but of course, every country has a dark side, and India’s is widely publicised.

Having eaten my second dinner and Mohammed taken his meds, it was time to turn in. Steward/Uncle had made up the beds at 9:30, so they were waiting for us. The downside of sharing your cabin with a young family is that you have absolutely no privacy, so I went in search of the showers to get changed.

My last experience in train WCs had filled me with dread, as it would anyone. My brain, ever eager to devise a coping strategy, hoped that the loos in first class would be better – apparently, only first class passengers are allowed to use them, but such rules are never usually enforced at home.

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I really, really wished I’d packed my bathroom flipflops. Cool decor though.

Much to my amazement, it wasn’t too bad in there. The floor was a bit damp – hence wishing for the flipflops – but it smelled alright and looked clean enough. Clean enough to even brush my teeth in! I’ve never felt quite so relieved.

Barbs took the top bunk, and I took the bottom, figuring this wouldn’t be the last time I made a trip to the loo in the night. Admittedly, the beds were a bit on the hard side – I think taking the bottom bunk was a mistake, as the more sturdy backrest of the seat was folded over the mattress. Then again, this isn’t the Ritz, and we had only paid £50 for a 1,000 kilometre journey.

Besides, I’m not really complaining. I’m the world’s lightest sleeper, and even I managed to get a few hours of shuteye (between the horns and the sudden shunts, that is). Our Gujarati companions disembarked at about 4AM, which stirred me, but again I can’t complain as their children were the quietest kids I’ve ever seen. If you sleep like a log, or don’t consider yourself a particularly light sleeper, then like Barbs you would have been completely fine.

I blinked my eyes open and awoke to a new day. The scenery had changed dramatically – instead of dusty scrub and haze, we found tropical mist and palm trees all around. We must be in Gujarat, the seaside state Mohammed’s family are from. He wasn’t awake to say hello, but I loved watching the wetlands and fields roll past. I hadn’t seen anything this green since we left England, though the weather was considerably better here.

My forehead was moist, and my top lip too. Was this… heat? Am I warm? By Jove, I think I am. What a turnaround, considering we’d been freezing our arses off for two weeks. Practically jumping for glee, I took advantage of the privacy of our now-empty cabin to change into something alien – a T-shirt and light trousers. The holiday wardrobe I thought I’d be wearing the entire trip.

An hour or so later, Barbs regained consciousness, just as we we reached Mumbai’s city limits. The place is huge – it takes an hour or so to chug from the outskirts to the city centre.

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View from the window. Our train looked like this one, parked in a siding outside Mumbai.

Plenty of time for breakfast, then, which consisted of cereal, tea, fruit juice, yoghurt and a pastry/some biscuits. A solid brekkie for adventurers and commuters alike. Breaking bread and having our first chat of the day, Mohammed and I reflected on our experience. We’d had a punctual, safe and pleasant journey. I hate flying, it makes me really anxious, so to be able to travel vast distances without getting on a plane was incredible. Plus, we’d seen some scenery, met some people, and saved a lot of cash on a hotel room, bags, and flight taxes etc. Best of all, it’s much better for the environment. Travelling India by train is a great way to do it – the only thing is, you can’t rely on the trains turning up on time. Be prepared for a lot of delays.

Not in this case, though, for Indian rail had one last surprise for us. The iron railings and bustling platforms of Mumbai Central came into view at 09:45 – the exact minute we were due to arrive. This is Japanese-level punctuality: I really hadn’t expected this. As Mohammed says, normally it’s “You think British trains are always late? Welcome to India!”, but today luck was shining upon us. Just as the sun was, stepping out of the station and into the hubbub of India’s busiest city.

 


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