On long trips there are days where you seem to do nothing but travel. Moving from one spot to the next is all part and parcel of the adventure of course, but, particularly when you are on your own, long journeys are often something to be endured rather than enjoyed…
As a result I’m not normally drawn to write about these experiences. Yesterday, though, I started the day flying over the Himalaya and by this afternoon I’m on a beach lined with palm trees, after a ride where things seemed to be going wrong every step of the way and yet magically all worked out in the end.
It started in Kathmandu, where I had decided enough was enough and I needed to escape the perpetual cold. My Indian Visa was granted after a lot of waiting around and I booked a series of flights and trains for the next day. At Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International airport I spent several countless eons queuing for my first flight to Delhi which was constantly threatened with delay of up to 2 hours but in the end got us there maybe 45 minutes late, the flight had some of the best in-flight entertainment with a stunning view of the Himalaya from my perfectly positioned window seat.
The delay was fine because my layover was over 4 hours and there is only so much Baskin Robbins one can eat. Delhi International airport may win lots of awards, and it is a beautiful place, but no free wi-fi is a big negative as far as I’m concerned. For all its claims as an IT forerunner India is lagging way behind in this regard…
Anyway, 4 hours turned into 5 and a half as my onward connection to Mumbai was also delayed. This wouldn’t have been an issue if I didn’t know that I had a train booked from the Victoria Terminus. I had left myself over 3 hours to get out of the airport and get to the station, a journey that could take up to 2 hours depending on traffic, so it was going to be tight. What could have been stressful actually turned into the best part of my day as the taxi driver speeded across the toll flyover, along Marine Drive with the lights of a Bombay night and the first big city I had seen since Bangkok.
We got to Central Station with bags of time to spare but then the next stage was trying to figure out the Indian Railways system of “Waitlisted” tickets. My booking was on the tourist “Taktal” quota with a low waitlist that I made an assumption would be enough to get me on the train. (The system works a bit like this… You try and book a seat (or more commonly sleeper berth) and only if you are in early enough do you get a confirmed spot. Otherwise you have to be on a waitlist based on others cancelling and also othe quotas which are reserved until just before the day of travel but are then released (for officials and suchlike). When you arrive at the station, waitlisted passengers are allocated a space and these reservations are posted on the side of each carriage depending on the class you booked under. So there are 2 or 3 tier AC coaches and “Sleeper” carriages which are more basic. If you don’t get a spot then you can be on the RAC or Reserved Against Cancellation list which means you can board the train but aren’t guaranteed a berth.)
Anyway, I had booked for AC3 since it had the lowest waitlist and therefore the best chance of getting on the train. On arriving I couldn’t find my name anywhere, and also nobody to ask/bribe. I was a bit confused because I thought my name would at least be there listed amongst those who had NOT made the cut but no.
Eventually, about 10 minutes after the train was due to depart I spotted a guy with a list, who, in hindsight, didn’t look especially reliable, covered in muck as he was, but he advised me to get on one of the sleeper carriages where there were seats and it would be sorted out.
I did this, thinking, yeah, the guard will be along in a minute and I’ll get an AC berth no worries. A couple of hours later, with the train filling up, I realised this wasn’t going to happen and after talking to the family who were reserved where I was sitting it transpired that what I had effectively done was board the train without a ticket because online bookings are automatically refunded if they are still waitlisted on departure. I decided to go and speak to the guard and see what a little baksheesh or simple ignorant pleading might do to ease my situation because I was looking at 8 hours with no seat, let alone a bed.
After speaking to 3 conductors who variously fobbed me off, told me the train was full, and then figured out my problem but kindly let me off an expensive ticket. This was good to an extent but I was still fending for myself on a very full train so eventually I just bedded down on the floor.
It wasn’t as uncomfortable as I expected and despite a further two hour delay and subsequent hassle from a new guard who I managed to disarm with a similar dumb foreigner act, the journey was actually quite enjoyable, and best of all, free.
I also decided I would do something that I threatened to do on the last trip here and make a pictoral record of all the various drinking waters that you can get here. I’m sure you’re all thrilled by that prospect so I’ll get you started with a couple..