One of the unique things about India, and one that you never quite come to terms with, is the trains. I would even go as far as to say that if you could understand Indian trains, then you might well lay claim to being truly at home in India. For almost everything that there is to experience in this wild and beautiful country is capable of being experienced by rail.
You see all sorts of things just by walking into a station. They are often grand buildings left over from the British age of iron and function as hotel for thousands of homeless travelers of all types. They have some of the best and very worst toilets in the world, and for some over the edge of the platform is preferred. They are often smelly, frequently dirty and occasionally horrid. But, for every bad thing there exists a good to balance it out. Stations are packed with families playing together, sleeping and eating together. There is the bustle and fizz of people meeting, people departing from loved ones and people wishing they were on their way. The best bookshops I found in India were operated out of mobile stores. Almost anything you could want is for sale on these strips of concrete, and after hours on a train you will eat almost anything (no matter where it has been). They are amazing places, a sort of nexus point and a melting pot of cultures. The gaps between the high and low fade away on these platforms. They are to India what blackcabs are to London. Almost, but not quite, romantic.
People sleeping at a Station.
India has invested heavily in its trains, a trick they learned from the Victorians, and something we back home should consider carefully. Short of flying, trains remain the quintessential method of transport around India. The tracks are everywhere. All the major cities are linked, and most of the minor ones. In fact, we never struggled to find a train going anywhere we wanted to go, from the high tech city of Bengaluru (Bangalore) to the deep desert city of Jaisalmer.
We just struggled to get on one or two.
They are not slow either. For while a journey, say from Varanasi to Agra, takes place over one night, a simple look out of the window shows how the train is hammering out the miles at mind-meltingly fast speeds. It’s just the country is massive. Eventually, train transport became a welcome break for us. We would even plan our journey around it and use it as a “free nights’ accommodation”. For seeing into a heart of India, trains are your choice.
And choice there is, bewildering choice. At the last count, we travelled in a total of 6 classes (there exists 8!). All different, all special. At the top is the Air Conditioned 1st Class (AC1). This is luxury travel, with your own carriage, bed, attendant and lunch thrown in. Depending on the train, this can be seriously high end, or basically AC2 with a lockable door. Below that is the amazingly good AC Executive chair class (2CC), which was my favourite. This was only ever on non-overnight trains (few and far between) such as regular commuter routes. 2CC is almost identical to being on a plane. Included is good food, service, a very comfy chair and even power sockets. Next comes Air-conditioned 2-tier (AC2), which is the standard class for travellers. This class is a bed/chair in a 2 man bunk resplendent with freshly laundered bedding and AC in the cabin. This is the class most businessmen travel and is a good way of meeting people. Of course, you have to watch your luggage, but we simply tied ours into mesh caging. At night, you get a little curtain to pull across your booth of 4 beds. After this is Air-conditioned 3-tier (AC3). This is exactly the same as 2nd AC but with older beds (noticeably less comfy) and 6 beds to a booth stacked 3 high. The top one is quite a climb. This is the class full of Indian families and often you will have to share your seat (the bottom bunk) with all of them before 8pm, when you can get the other bunks down. This is a great class to meet people in; basically you have no choice. All of these classes are booked very simply online or at a station. In stations in large cities, there may be a special tourists counter that can usually get you late tickets that are marked as sold out. The very high end online system will sell you a ticket to a train that is fully booked, by putting you on a waiting list and you have to turn up and see where (and if) you are going to be placed. This always worked fine in practice and even when the waiting list is 15 long. The seating arrangements are always printed out about an hour before the train is due and is also attached to the door of the train itself. So, you can always check, before getting onto a carriage, that this is your train and which seat you have. We never had to stand in three months when we used this system the way it wants to be used, and as long as we had a print out of the booking we never had a problem with an inspector. All in all a well run service, better than the UK and far cheaper.
After the AC classes there comes Unreserved 2nd class. This is a lot more down market and nasty rows of vinyl seats in fan-cooled packed carriages await you. This is often way over subscribed and standing here is common. Some people even slept in the luggage racks. This is not a pleasant way to travel in any way. If you are new to the country, not acclimatised to the weather, have more than two-pennys to rub together or in any way used to luxury transport then this is not for you.
The lowest class, Unreserved 2nd class with wooden seats, is the service that India is famous for. It is a scrum. In this class, you are not only travelling in space, but in time as the carriages are ancient and rattle very loudly. This is the class the locals all pack themselves into, the tickets are – for a westerner – exceedingly cheap and there is nothing, nothing approaching seat reservation.
“But, so what?” you ask.
In the UK, hardly anyone actually books a seat. You simply turn up and sit down. Not so in India. Every now and then I would see some poor hapless looking westerner imagine that the same applies to Indian trains. You could always tell them immediately. They were pale white, and wearing clothing that marked them out as newbies. Unreserved wooden 2nd is filled by 2 person wooden seats. Or at least, I guess Unreserved wooden 2nd is 2 person wooden seats, I never actually managed to see one because it was always taken up with 6 people. That’s right, 6. And they would also have had to fight for that space against the horde, the true horde of people needing to get that train. The crush was something similar to what you imagine on the Tokyo metro line. Just without the white-gloved “pusher” to cram you in. Add three more things into this mix. Firstly, no one in 3rd will speak much English if any. Secondly, some of the men will have been munching on the obligatory chewable tobacco all morning and may be high (one girl I know, got seriously groped by stoned men all the time in this class). Thirdly, your average traveller will have a large amount of luggage compared with the possible space to put it.
Now, some people profess to me that they travelled the whole of India in Unreserved 2nd class with wooden seats. That this is the only way to “truly” see the country. I respect that level of masochism and good luck to you. But some even say that you can’t call yourself a true traveller without doing it this way.
Those people are idiots.
You can’t see shit from inside those carriages. You will spend up to and over 9 hours standing, wedged in like Tetris pieces, with all your bags being eyed up for theft and your body up for grabs. And grabbed it will be, especially if you are a female from somewhere like Sweden, which makes you the most exotic thing many will have ever seen. If that sounds fun to you, if that sounds authentic, then frankly you are welcome to it.
I would sit at the station awaiting my train and watch these “whitey’s” clamber into these carriages. Yep, they are keeping-it-real alright, real dumb. India is not like it was only 10 years ago. The population increase is simply stratospheric, and this has changed the country. It is richer, more sure of itself and has invested in public transport. Clearly, in this day and age when India has invested so much money into better train carriages, it is only the insane who travel anywhere in Unreserved 2nd class with wooden seats.
“Which class?” the man behind the ticket counter asked me. I looked at Cesca, who was flicking through her Lonely Planet.
“Unreserved 2nd baby, get the cheapest with wooden seats. We must save money and really experience India.” She said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I want the real experience.”
“OK then,” I turned back to the bored looking man, “2nd class please.”
He eyed us levelly. Paused and then punched out two tickets.
We went to find the platform. This was a challenge…
Flash back twenty minutes to when we arrived at the Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus VT station and tried to make our way inside.
The station was really busy, and under a very high security alert status. But that was not the biggest problem. We had to make it by the touts first. I wonder if everyone in India has read Shantaram, or it is just that once you have you see potential characters everywhere. Today I kept seeing touts offering city guides. It didn’t matter that we were walking into the station rather than out, it was perhaps our look of apprehension, our newbie’ness, that marked us out from the hordes. One tout in particular was very good at his job and it took many minutes before we were able to disengage ourselves from him, in fact it was only by promising to come back and hire him for the day that we managed it at all. This didn’t fool him for a nano-second, but it worked.
We made it to the upstairs tourists-only counter and after much form filling in, waiting, judging options and other such mundane and not exciting parts of travelling we found our train. Indian train tracks have digital readouts embedded into the station ceiling along the platform that signify which carriage will stop where. It is a very helpfull system and necessary as the trains don’t stop for more than a few minutes and are exceedingly long.
Our train awaited us already and we walked endlessly along its length, around the many food stalls, right to the back. As we neared the last few carriages, I could see that the Unreserved 2nd class with wooden seats was already slammed full of people, we were never getting in there. Indeed we could not even get in the door. Cesca looked along the windows at the large collection of faces looking back, hanging out of the windows and also buying food stuff from the vendors walking up and down under the window with trays piled high with samosas, pakoras and water.
I started to despair a little when suddenly one of the ultra efficient train guards came up and asked if he could help. He took one look at our tickets, one look at us and upgraded us to vinyl seats
Cue an eight hour train journey that taxed me mightily. For while it was great fun to see all the Indians and have them stare at us and to have their children practice their very good English with us (cute) it was hot as a mo-fo and sticky as treacle.
On the way we called ahead to book our hotel (Hotel Panchavati). Elorra is accessed from a few places nearby, the main one being the small city of Aurangabad. We called a hotel and booked a double room. Cesca was reading in the Lonely Planet that the best tour guide in the area was a guy called Ashoka (Tours and Travels – firstname.lastname@example.org – http://www.freewebs.com/ashokatourandtravels/index.htm). The LP waxed lyrical about this guy’s prowess and how he was a fair trader. We decided that perhaps we would try and find him the next day.
Eventually the monster train pulled into Aurangabad and we dismounted. Immediately a taxi driver tout started to talk us into taking a ride to the hotel. I remember being so worn out that I relented and in triumph he led us through the throng towards the exit. It was then that, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a sign with my name on.
It was being held by a smart looking tall Indian man.
“Hold on baby, look.” I said to Cesca.
I regarded the man, “Hello there, I am James Bell,” I said pointing to the sign. He broke into a massively infectious grin.
“Hello sir, welcome. I am Ashoka your hotel pickup.”
“The hotel sent you?”
“Yes sir,” he beamed.
“But, I didn’t book you.”
“I pick up all their guests sir, for free sir.”
“I see,” I turned to our taxi driver tout, “Sorry old boy, we won’t be needing a taxi after all.”
The man, who had been watching the conversation with what looked like a rising sense of dread, said, “But, you are mine, you said-“
He was cut off by a rattle of smooth Indian coming from Ashoka and fell quiet. He then left us immediately.
“Dont worry about him sir,” said Ashoka. He picked up Cesca’s bag and led us forth.
“Smooth operator,” I whispered to Cesca. “I wonder if he is the real Ashoka from the LP?”
“Bound to be,” she whispered back.
“Perhaps it’s a badge and they all take turns. That would be a great idea, have a legendary tout name in the LP. Kind of like the ending of Spartacus. No, I am Ashoka.”
He led us to a very clean Tuk Tuk and whisked us off into the night. During the journey, he spoke to us of the Ellora tour options he could do for us. They were actually quite reasonable, for a small fee we would get a driver for the day who would take us there and back and drive us around the large site.
We arrived at our hotel and Ashoka parked up and helped us in. Of all the hotels I have stayed in on this continent, this was one I will remember gladly. It was nothing special in English terms, but the staff, their attitude and the quality of the room was excellent. So was the food as long as you stayed with the Indian options. In fact they went that extra mile for us that really makes a difference.
Of course, it turned out that he was the “real” Ashoka – at least for today. I liked him more and more over the days we knew him. He was a very cleaver businessman, open to the opportunities dealt to him by the passing traveller trade. His price to us was not very profitable, but I guess the word of mouth alone is worth any price to him. He deserves it. Truly the best tout I have ever dealt with.
The next day we headed out to Ellora, 30 km (19 mi) from the city of Aurangabad.
Ellora caves are on my list for one of the wonders of the world . Massive and very impressive cave temples have been carved out of the very living rock in one piece groups.
Ellora represents the epitome of Indian rock-cut architecture. The 34 “caves” – actually structures excavated out of the vertical face of the Charanandri hills – being Buddhist, Hindu and Jain rock cut temples and monasteries, were built between the 5th century and 10th century.
Huge complicated rooms with multiple levels, statues, stairs, chambers and complex pathways have been hammered out by hand.
Kailash Temple(Kailashnath Temple)… represents the epitome of Indian rock-cut architecture. It is designed to recall Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. While it exhibits typical Dravidian features, it was carved out of one single rock. It was built in the 8th century by the Rashtrakuta kingKrishna I.
The Kailash Temple is notable for its vertical excavation — carvers started at the top of the original rock, and excavated downward, exhuming the temple out of the existing rock. The traditional methods were rigidly followed by the master architect which could not have been achieved by excavating from the front. The architects found to design this temple were from the southern Pallavakingdom.
It is estimated that about 200,000 tons of rocks was scooped out over hundreds of years to construct this monolithic structure.From the chisel marks on walls of this temple, archeologists could conclude that three types of chisels were used to carve this temple.
The temples all run oldest to youngest up the side of a large cliff.
At one end you have some of the oldest Buddhist temples in the world, then you have a collection of Hindu temples of increasing complexity and finally you have a Jian temple of great splendour.
All are easy to see and, for someone interested in any of these fascinating religions, a must see. If, however, you are not into temples and don’t know your Jain Vardhamana from your Buddha, it could be a little samey by the end. For those who tire: the main Hindu temple is stuffed to the gills with topless female goddess statues with enormous breasts.
It is also full of Indian tour groups who are generally very friendly and interested in meeting foreigners.
There are also rooms full of bats.
“Come look in here, baby,” I said, immediately recognising the smell of bat droppings (an easy way to work out a colony is nearby.
“What’s in there? It’s pitch black!”
I grinned, “Yeah, and smell that.”
“Yep! Wanna’ take a look?”
“OK, but I am not too in love with bats, unlike you.”
It is true that I like bats. I find them cute, like mice or hamsters with wings. They are also very skilful and generally harmless. I slipped on my head torch, but left it turned off and stepped into the room. All around I could hear fluttering.
Cesca came in next to me.
“OK look up,” I said and turned the torch on. Thousands of bats looked down on us from a large collection of rooms linked by a huge hole in a ceiling. The room seemed to hold it breath, as the bats no doubt were trying to work out what we were.
“They are not moving,” Cesca whispered.
“Not yet,” I replied and then let out a large Karate Kiai scream.
That got them moving.
It was bit like that scene in Batman Begins where he falls down the well. All the bats tried to move away at once in a cacophony of high pitched squeaking. They flowed around us like water and all curled up and out of the hole in the ceiling.
It was very cool, but I am not sure Cesca agreed. We decided to leave the poor little things alone and headed on.
Half way through the day, the driver took us to a roadside cafe and I met a new friend; Indian Thali.
Photo Souce: Wiki
This magical meal is now a staple part of my diet. It is a simple and honest food, a gift to the world of cuisine that this country can be justifiably proud of. For while it is essentially a philosophy more than a special taste, it is a clever balance of flavours and food groups served on one plate with the large papad (popadum to the English). I loved it. All around us was Indian diners, families with children, working men stopping by and only us. I looked to Cesca and we shared a smile. It was the first time in India that we didn’t feel like tourists, that is we didn’t feel like we were on a tour. There is a lot of fuss written about travellers versus tourists, and for me the arguments miss the point. Of course we don’t belong in the countries we visit, we remain outsiders, but often a special effort is made, a bubble created that separates us from the local by virtue of things being just for tourists. Tourist events, locations, restaurants, bars, cafes, hotels, transport and sights. This bubble travels with you and prevents you from having a real time. You struggle to remove it, to step outside it, to just be in with the locals. Losing the special treatment is the goal of almost all travellers and it is that which distinguishes them from tourists. Manage it, if only a little bit or for a little while, and your year away, your holiday, will find meaning.
We hunted for that feeling again and again. It was a fine balancing act, but I think – when it mattered – we got out of the bubble. I shall tell you where so that you may too.
Anyway, after an amazing day in Ellora we returned to the hotel and my darling Cesca came down with a massive headache from the heat. At dinner that night she decided to have something simple. Often, Indian restaurants do three types of food: English, Indian (or tourist Indian) and Chinese.
90% of the time, stick to the Indian.
Cesca’s stir-fry was probably made by someone who had only seen Chinese cuisine in a picture book. It was noodles, etc, as normal, but the sauce was identical to wallpaper paste. Cesca’s headache was not satisfied by it!
Our next day was taken up with visiting Daulatabad Fort, meaning “City of Prosperity”.
This huge Medieval structure was once the capital of India and was founded in the 11th century by the Yadavas. The move from Delhi was in response to the Muslim incursions into the country that would eventually smash all defences and give over India to the Mughals. It is also one of the homes of Sufism with a medieval saint having lived here. We wandered around here and took in the impressive defensive sights.
Definitely worth the effort.
The next day we left the hotel and, after having tipped Ashoka, we clambered back onto the train towards Mumbai. We were on a tight schedule to catch our connecting train to Goa. It was Valentines day in a few days and we wanted to be on the beaches.
Goa was going to be a big experience. But, like most of India, not in the way we expected.