Anyone who's ever thought about travelling through India has seen the images of the overcrowded trains and heard the horror stories about being jammed in for hours on end in a carriage with no air-con and very little comfort.
My experience so far in just about a month in the country is that, while it has its challenges, getting around India has actually been pretty easy. So far.
As I write this I'm getting ready to take my longest – and final – train journey, from Udaipur to Mumbai. I'll be getting on at 9:30pm tonight and arriving around around 2pm tomorrow afternoon. While it sounds like a long haul, its far from the longest journey possible, and many of the other tourists I've met have done trips which have surpassed 24 hours.
Once you figure out the Indian train system it is actually fairly straight forward. Having said that, trying to organise my first trip, from Calcutta to Varanasi, was anything but easy and took a good half a day going from counter to counter before eventually finding the people who could help me.
With many trains booking up months in advance, the one saving grace for foreign tourists is the tourist quota. Most routes keep a certain number of tickets available for foreigners meaning we can generally get away with buying tickets the day before. But it doesn't always work out so easily. I've had to take advantage of the “Tatkal” booking system – where you attempt to book tickets at 10am the day before a trip with some last minute release tickets, along with thousands of other people – as well as the Wait list, where you pay for your ticket, despite no seats actually being available in anticipation of people cancelling. As crazy as this system seems, so far its worked for me.
The trains are also surprisingly comfortable. With several different classes (including three classes of air conditioned sleeper, and one without AC) all at good prices, you can find something that will suit your budget/comfort line. Being a bit of a “flashpacker” these days as I'm a bit older, I've stuck to the AC classes for most trips.
A relatively empty 2nd class carriage
I was, however, left taking an “unreserved” journey on one occasion. These are the carriages that are overcrowded, hot, dirty and overall, not really that pleasant. It definitely is an experience though. Having caught the wrong train and gotten off at a stop in the middle of nowhere, I was directed by a good samaritan to jump on a train going to my destination. The only thing was it was already leaving. With my full pack on my back and thongs on my feet I had to take a running start and literally jump up into the carriage, being dragged in by the people hanging out of the door. Once inside I had many eyes on me clearly wondering why I was in that carriage. I was kind of thinking the same thing.
After a couple of stops I was able to get a seat and from there the rest of the trip wasn't so bad. My fellow passengers were really kind, offering me all kinds of food – although the 4 year old using the floor next to me as a toilet kind of ruined my appetite.
In the end I made it to my destination, and for about $1.25 for a 4 hour journey, who can complain?
Far from being a nightmare, I've actually started wishing my own country had a train system as efficient.
So who has had some bad experiences on Indian trains? And I'm I pushing my luck posting this article before my final, and longest, journey? Let me know in the comments!