According to my travel experiences, along with massive China, India is the other country that you don’t want to visit if not using a train. Why? Because, apart for the cheapness, it is comfortable, quite fast, goes almost anywhere and more importantly, it is VERY SAFE. In a country where drivers are known to trash their vehicles and have some sort of weird syndrome which forces their nerves to attach one hand to the horn constantly, magically making them deaf (and therefore totally uncaring) to the ear-piercing noise, the train stands for the best option.
But of course being India a country with a huge population, train travel deserves some explanations: in fact, if you have been to India and you were able to understand why and how the train quotas work, I think you deserve to be entitled a Nobel Prize. Differently from China, where 没有票 means 没有票 and there is no way in hell you will be able to get on that train, in India, for some unknown reason, the train is ALWAYS BOOKED FULL. But somehow, you ALWAYS end up on the train. Incredible, isn’t it? Well, let me try to explain this strange “system”…
First of all, me and Kit Yeng traveled in Southern India, and we went in April. The school holiday month. This would indeed make train booking and travel almost impossible but… we did it!! We always got on the train we wanted booking a few days, or just hours before, and the only problem we had was sharing the same bunk for one night on the ultra busy Goa to Mumbai overnight sleeper train. Thank god, Chinese girls are tiny and you can fit them anywhere So, how could we make it? I don’t know. I just know I had to queue up quite a number of times, and especially one time, getting a train ticket in Tiruchirappali’s station resulted in an adventure comparable to Dante’s travel across Hell, the Purgatory and Paradise altogether. The main problem is, besides the fact Indians DO QUEUE UP, differently from the Chinese which don’t and just mess around, they push you, try to steal your position and, when confronted, start screaming and menace to get into a fight. This said, it is generally possible to get a ticket BUT:
RULE NUMBER ONE: WALK TO THE TICKET COUNTER
This is just possible if you want to purchase a ticket from the station you are in at that moment, for a train which is leaving the same day. This is not the place to make reservations, which have to be made in a separate office, usually located in a different part (very far) of the station. If you want one of this last minute tickets, no problem, they will issue as many as you like, as long as they can fit people inside, outside and ON the train. These are second class tickets, better known as “carnage” or “luggage rack class”. Why? because when the carnage happens, you better crawl on top of the luggage rack where, at least, you can seat. Some people even manage to lay down and sleep on the luggage rack’s bars (I tried, it is fairly comfortable since the rack is made of quite wide pieces of wood, definitely better than the steel tubes you have in Europe), but when the carnage starts, you might be scolded so hard to instantly get up and leave space to some other form of human (or not) being. Besides this, if you can cope with the humanity, the smell of food and sometimes feces, the sweat and the heat (occasionally cooled off by some 50s looking fans sprouting from the ceiling like mechanical mushrooms), the second class is truly enjoyable. It is a very good way to REALLY get up close (of course, because there is no friggin’ other space left in the carriage) with the Indian people, enjoy the smiles and the casual conversations and the kids who will end up sleeping with their heads on your sweaty lap, it definitely is an experience. At least, contrary to Chinese buses, people’s breath don’t smell of cabbage and rotten egg. It is indeed an experience to try at least once during any trip to India, according to me.
RULE NUMBER TWO: THE RESERVATION COUNTER
Be careful: this might cause some problems, depending on where you are. The reservation desks are so shady that most travelers opt to spend much more (sometimes even the double amount of the normal ticket fee) to ask an agency to reserve their tickets, because it ain’t easy. First, you queue up, you wait for half an hour, you get there, and they ask you to provide the reservation form sheet which of course you didn’t even know existed. So, you get one, and you have to fill it in, before going to the counter again. Make sure you have an address to write down, and the train number, exact date, number of people, passports numbers… everything. Even the father’s name, sometimes. After this, you are ready to go.
It is important to specify that Indian trains have different classes, 8 in particular, or better: too many!! Just consider the main difference is between air conditioned carriage and not air conditioned carriage, but to get a full description with pictures and examples, check the mighty man in Seat 61 website and read more. The more you want to spend (for the different kinds of a/c classes), the better chances you have to reserve a ticket. You want to reserve a ticket because India is HUGE, and at some point you will have to travel overnight, and of course you’d like to get a sleeping berth. A/C looks good, but is two to three times more expensive than the totally perfect (at least, to me, the cockroach lover man) sleeper class. Sleeper class is the one class most of the Indians use when traveling, it’s quite busy but generally decently clean, and is the class which budget travelers favor. Well, it is dirtcheap. A 400 miles journey in a sleeping berth can cost you as low as 5 to 6 euros. Pretty good, isn’t it? Yeah. That’s why this class is generally booked solid full even months in advance, especially during holiday peak periods… so, how do you buy a ticket, and how do you approach the reservation counter? Oh boy… with GUTS.
TO BE CONTINUED