A visit to India won't be complete if one doesn't travel on the long-distance train. Indian Railways, with 63,000 kms. of train routes and 6,800 train stations, go to almost anywhere in India. It's not a surprise then that most Indians travel by train. It's cheap, fast and fairly efficient.
Of course, I'm well aware of previous train tragedies, the most recent being just last month on Valentine's Day. Let's knock on wood...err...steel that nothing happens, shall we? I'm riding on a long-distance train today from Satna to Varanasi, a distance of 316 kilometers taking 8 hours. It cost me 573 Rupees ($11) to book a berth on a 2-tier airconditioned sleeper class compartment.
Sangam drove me very early this morning from Khajuraho to catch Sarnath Express train leaving at 8:05 AM. Satna train station is already abuzz with people and many passengers are actually sleeping on the dirty floors while waiting. I had to carefully locate my platform without stepping on someone's face. Thankfully, my train came on time.
I found my coach and stepped on board. It's clean by Indian standards. On this particular class, there are four bunks (2 upper and 2 lower) on one side of the aisle and 2 along the side of the coach all curtained-off for privacy. I'm on the lower berth on the coach side with two windows. An attendant came to distribute sheets and pillows. I only asked for a pillow as I brought my sleeping bag with me.
Shortly after the train left Satna, an old man came along taking meal orders on a piece of paper. The only English word he could tell me when I asked what's available is "Ve-gee-tabol". OK, I'm not a vegetarian but I have no choice. The old man disappears and came back about an hour later with a styrofoam tray laden with strange-looking food. I'm so famished having not eaten breakfast but my 35-Rupee (69 cents) vegetarian meal doesn't look appetising. I ate the roti and tried sampling whatever there is but I just couldn't finish it. Later that night in Varanasi, I'd be visiting the toilet frequently in what is my first encounter with Delhi Belly!SCENES ALONG THE WAY
As the train trundled eastward, scenes of rural India came into view: A woman tending to a herd of goats and some women working on a wheatfield. A man riding a bicycle loaded with goods bound for the market. Cars and motorbikes stopping as we pass by village after village. It's sad that a lot of these folks still want to try their luck in already congested cities like Delhi and Mumbai only to end up living in slum areas.
I move to the back of my coach, past the toilets that discharge effluents directly to the train tracks and into another coach called the sleeper class - basically the non-airconditioned compartment of the train with 6 bunks (lower, middle, upper) on one side of the aisle and 2 bunks on the other side. This is how majority of the Indians travel. It gets very crowded here. Remember that scene in "Slumdog Millionaire" where Jamal steals food from the train window while hanging upside down? This is that same coach.
Visitors who want to travel by train are advised to book tickets in advance via
www.irctc.co.in as they easily sell out especially on very busy routes. You need to register in order to buy tickets. They don't operate 24 hours - only from 5:00 AM to 11:00 PM Indian time. When paying with credit/debit card, you will be prompted to pay through a choice of Indian banks that will process the payment. Electronic tickets are issued once confirmed.