December 21, 2012

Come On Ride the Train

After 2 great weeks in McLeod Ganj (more to come), we just got to Amritsar, Punjab, India a few days ago, which is right on the border of Pakistan and home to the Golden Temple, a major pilgrimage site for Sikhs. Leaving, McLeod Ganj, we woke up at 3am (I actually just never went to sleep and Steph only slept for about an hour) and grabbed a taxi in McLeod Ganj to Dharamsala, and then rode a local bus for 6 hours to get here. Like we told you in a previous post, the busses can be pretty scary (read here), and the ride to Amritsar was no exception. The bus was old and rickety and noisy. We were cold. The bus driver was aggressive (like all Indian drivers), and we didn't enjoy a single minute of our journey. After that experience, I thought it would be good to tell you about our favorite kind of transportation in India; the choo choo.
On the top bunk of the choo choo
India is big. Really big. And we are always moving from one place to the next. But, the roads are crowded and bumpy. The traffic laws are really only mere suggestions. Cows generally have the right-of-way. And, yes, the busses are less than ideal. For these reasons, and many more, traveling by train has become our favorite way to get around in this vast and populated country. With over 115,000 kilometers (71,000 miles) of train tracks throughout the country, about 20 million Indians ride the Indian Railways every DAY. It is, by far, the easiest, safest and most cost-effective way to get around in India. They're even relatively clean, except for the bathrooms, which are pretty much holes in the floor that open to the speeding track below). Note: Steph wants me to tell you that the train bathrooms alone have been reason enough to justify her bringing along her Go-Girl
Cute little girl we befriended on a train
We book our tickets ourselves using ClearTrip, rather than using an agent. It saves us a little money and allows us to be more flexible with our plans. 

The trains are definitely the way to go when you're traveling inside India, but they're not always stress free. There are hawkers, people crowding into the berth and aggressive beggars (including children, which is particularly tough), so the trains feel like a microcosm of India.

So far we have only travelled by sleeper class, which is the most common class. Below Sleeper Class is the 2nd/General Class. These tickets are the cheapest and basically feel like a cattle car. There aren't assigned seats, people are packed in tightly, and there are questionable smells. Steph swears she saw a live chicken in the 2nd class car once. Sleeper Class cars have berths with 3 tiers of bunks (Upper, Middle, and Lower) facing each other (6 in total). The upper bunks are a few feet from the ceiling, and the lower bunks are used as seats when people don't want to sleep. The back rest for the lower bunks fold out to act as the middle bunk for longer and overnight journeys. The more expensive class cars are the A/C cars, which include cars with 3-tier, 2-tier, and 1-tier bunks. (A/C 1-Tier, or First Class, cars aren't very common and are only offered on a handful of train routes.) In the A/C cars, the bunks are cleaner and generally replaced more often. The windows are tinted, and there are curtains to close off the berth from the walkway. They usually hand out blankets and pillows to riders in these cars.

While up to this point the longest train ride we have taken has been 9 hours, we are taking a 17 hour trip today, which is a long time for us, but not an uncommon journey for people in India who use train transportation the way we use plane travel in the states. On one of the first trains we took, we met a young guy on the train in Kerala who was headed home to Delhi after taking a college entry exam. He spent 60 hours on the train to get down there, stayed for 36 hours to take the test and headed home on another 60 hour train ride. This may seem crazy to us but, with train travel being so cheap, it's hard to justify the expense of a flight that he and his family may have difficulty affording. On another train ride, we met a woman who had travelled from Kochi to Chennai (across the country) and back again with her 7 year old son for a family wedding (about a 30 hour trip each way for a 2 day wedding). Train travel is just part of the culture here, so people don't think twice about these long journeys. Not only is it a great way to get around, but also a great way to meet people. We've had some great experiences on trains - meeting tourists and locals alike. Because you face each other sitting on the trains, the space in your berth becomes a communal space, really encouraging communication. 
Steph, sweating it out on a train
And we've also seen some beautiful sites while traveling on trains.

Inside of a sleeper car
Because many people are traveling long distances, each train has a catering car where they cook fresh samosas, biryani, tomato soup, hot chai, and a variety of other snacks. There is a constant stream of vendors walking the aisles hawking their goods. Each vendor has his own way to get your attention. There may be 5 different guys that come through selling chai, one chai-walla (chai vendor) will sing "Chai, Chai , Chai," another guy will will just say it in a deep raspy voice, and another guy will sing a song about chai. On each train ride, we usually have our favorite vendors and sales calls. And the food is cooked fresh, so it's pretty good - much better than any airline food we've had. 

Our next few weeks will be in Rajasthan, where busses are more common than trains, but we'll continue to take trains whenever possible.

Check out some more train pictures below. (Full album here.) Choo Choo!

Train schedule
Me, in the line for ladies and foreigners
Steph, waiting on a train platform

Waiting at one of the more rural stations
Steph, trying to catch some Zzzzs on the train

Another friendly little girl we met on the train

Hot and tired
The luxurious life...


  1. Does ClearTrip offer any advantages over the Official Indian Railways site

    1. We just like the user interface of ClearTrip vs the IRCTC site. When we book with ClearTrip, we actually book through IRCTC directly. (We had to create an IRCTC account when we signed up for ClearTrip), but we find the ClearTrip interface to be similar to what we use at home, so it's easier for us. We can also book flights and hotels through ClearTrip, so that's an added benefit.