by Lynnell Mickelsen
A few days ago, we took our first trip on the Indian Railway system, which the Lonely Planet Guide includes on its list of top things to do in India because it’s a classic way to see the countryside and hang out with ordinary Indian travelers.
We decided to start off easy with an overnight side trip to a Bodhgaya, a Buddhist pilgrimage site about 150 miles from our base in Varanasi. We’d put our big backpacks in storage at our hotel, take the five-hour train trip up to Bodhgaya in morning; stay overnight at a Buddhist retreat center; come back the next afternoon and stay one last night in Varanasi. We had bought our tickets a week in advance. I mean, what could go wrong?
As it turns out….plenty. Riding the Indian Railways can be so confusing, it’s inspired an entire cottage industry of ways to cope
We got a preview of this when we first tried to buy the tickets on-line. The Indian Railways website was so confusing and difficult, John ultimately gave up and went to an Indian travel agency. It took hours for the experienced travel agency staff to book the tickets. But thanks to their heroic efforts, we were able to reserve all our scheduled Indian rail tickets in advance and emerged with printed confirmation sheets showing we had paid in advance.
But in India, paying for tickets doesn’t necessarily mean you actually have a seat. Instead, you are put onto a waiting list. There are phone apps that can let you track your ever-shifting chances for getting on…40 percent….70 percent, etc.
We were blissfully unaware of all this the morning that we arrived at the vast and aging Varanasi train station. We stared at the big electronic departure board, which shifted from Hindi to English, and eventually figured out our train was scheduled to depart on platform 9 and was already a few hours late.
Varanasi Junction Station, photo courtesy of jabalpur rocks/Flickr
We spent a few hours in the station, killing time with crowds of Indian travelers, some of of whom looked like they had been waiting for their train for weeks. Eventually, we made our way to platform 9 and encountered the next problem: there were no car numbers or seat assignments on our printed confirmation sheets, so how would we know which car to get on and where to sit?
We watched as several crowded and extremely long trains pulled into the station. Crowds of passengers then pushed their way on. We were baffled We tried asking our fellow passengers how to get a seat assignment, but no one spoke enough English. We searched for conductors or any other Indian Railways employees. Never saw anyone. Eventually, two young 20-something Indian Millennials, seeing us wandering around confused and helpless, took us in hand.
Train arriving on the platform at Varanasi Junction , courtesy India Rail Info
In order to get seat assignment, they explained, we needed to find our 10-digit reservation number, which was located in tiny print in a tiny box on our confirmation sheet. Who knew? Then we needed to go on-line to the Indian Railways website, type in the number to get our train car and seat assignments. Except the Indian Railways website is infamous for not working. So instead we should download some of the phone apps like Train Man, which which give out the same information and seem to be more reliable.
The two of them whipped out their phones, punched in our reservation numbers and told us our car and seat numbers. They were so busy helping us, they nearly missed their 0wn trains–one had to chase the train down and leap onto one of the last cars as it pulled away.
Have we mentioned that we keep meeting the nicest, most generous people in India and everywhere else on this trip?
The life-saving Train Man App
After they left, we got out our phones, downloaded the Train Man App—this is one reason why we labored long and hard to get Indian SIM cards. You really do need data to negotiate India as independent travelers. We punched in our reservation and voila—-there was loads of information. The good news was that we were off the waiting lists and our seats were now truly confirmed. The bad news was the train was five hours late, which by Indian standards is actually just an eensy weensy delay—-we’re learning that Indian Railways makes Amtrak look like it’s run by the Swiss.
Travelers waiting for trains in Varanasi station. Rail traffic in India means a lot of waiting.
When our train finally pulled into platform 9, a guy was in one of our of our seats. We eventually got him to leave, but we never did see a conductor, nor did anyone ever come by to check our tickets. John and I were in different compartments. There were no announcements about what station is coming up; most of the signs were in Hindi; and we weren’t always able to glimpse the station signs in English as we went by. So we had to ask our fellow passengers where we were or try checking it on Google maps if our phone cell data was available.
The second-class sleeper cars–pretty basic. Courtesy India Rail Info
It was dark when we arrived at our peaceful Buddhist retreat center in Bodhgaya. The next day, before we starting out tour of various temples. John checked his new Train Man apps, which said our return train was delayed by five hours and would now arrive back in Varanasi around 2 a.m.
Trust me, you do not want to arrive in Varanasi at 2 a.m. as 60-year-old Americans carrying cash, credit cards and passports and try to get an auto-rickshaw back to the area near our Hotel Alka, which can only be accessed on foot through a maze of walkways, all of which are completely dark at that time of night.
The alternative to Indian Railways: driving in Mad Max convoys
So with the help of the Buddhist retreat center, we arranged for a car to drive us back to Varanasi. It cost $75—or about triple the cost of both of our Indian Rail tickets. The dispatcher said a driver would pick us up at 2 p.m. and the 150 mile trip would take at least six hours because route was known for particularly bad truck traffic jams.
Our driver seemed to be in his mid-40s. He spoke almost no English, so we communicated through hand gestures or on occasional notes on our phone translated into Hindi via Google Translate.
And man, what a drive. The roads in India are intensely crowded and/or bumpy.We drove through a never-ending cloud of dust with the usual collection of cows, people, dogs, bicycles, three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, horse-carts, cars and trucks.
We spent most of the ride on a divided freeway that seemed to be under continual construction. And we discovered the dispatcher wasn’t kidding when he talked about truck traffic jams. Again and again, we found the highway completely obstructed with lines of semi-trucks, clogging up traffic and standing still. The backed up traffic stretched out for miles.
Our driver’s solution for this was to turn around, cross over the median—over huge bumps or weaving between a break in the concrete lane barriers– and then start driving the wrong-way, directly into the on-coming traffic, flashing his lights because the jams were generally only on one side of the highway.
At first we thought he was crazy, But we soon realized he was amazing. When our driver encountered traffic jams that couldn’t be solved by simply driving the wrong way, he would take back roads—along with plenty of other drivers. We always seemed to be part of a Mad Max kind of convoy as we hurtled down dusty back roads, some of which seemed more like paths, dodging cows and food carts But eventually, we always found ourselves back on the freeway, past the latest crazy traffic jam.
The man was a genius. And don’t even get me started on his hair-raising, surgically-close, but ultimately successful passing techniques that NASCAR drivers and Hollywood stunt men wouldn’t dare attempt.
The whole ride was like a wild, wild virtual reality video game. Naturally, there were no seat-belts.
At 8:30 p.m. we arrived in Varanasi, feeling vindicated because according to the trusty Train Man app, the train we were scheduled to take still hadn’t even left Bodhgaya and was now scheduled to arrive in Varanasi the next morning.
In Varanasi, however, the traffic was too crazy for even our driver to negotiate, which tells you a lot. So he parked his car, hailed a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw for us, negotiated the price and jumped in, determined to personally walk us to our hotel, if need be.
It was a Sunday night, so in addition to the usual dense-packed traffic, the streets were crowded with massive wedding parties, floats, bands and horses carrying the bridal couples to the next party. Our rickshaw driver pounded his horn, ducked and weaved, but there wasn’t much room to negotiate, so he too ended taking back routes that were so rutted and bumpy, I thought the whole rickshaw would dump over. Even our fearless car driver, clutching the handgrips, at times appeared wide-eyed.
Wedding procession moving through Varanasi at night, courtesy YouTube
Eventually, the rickshaw driver got us close enough to the hotel to start walking in. All three of us got out. After a few blocks, we convinced our car driver that we knew our way from here, thanked him profusely and gave him a big tip.
We never did understand how to pronounce his name and didn’t speak the same language. And yet he was such a heroic sweetheart to us. I wanted to hug him, but that’s not done in India. So we put our hands together and said Namaste.
Bottom line……..travel in India is never dull.