If you are just about to go for a long-haul journey in India and if you feel like travelling in a safe and efficient way, then the train is definitely the best option for you to consider. Although India is a country where things are very rarely under the control and organization is not part of the culture, I believe the train is the easiest way to travel and you can actually get to see the Indian novel taking place right in front of your eyes. Bus is not bad but all the context of bad roads with cows wandering and crazy drivers making you nervous make train the hassle-free way for travelling from one place to another.
The best and safer way of booking the train ticket is showing up in an agency and buying directly with the agent, but you can also do it online, as long as you have an Indian sim card or someone who can provide you with his/her Indian phone number. The confirmation of the ticket will be sent to that number, and if there is a delay or other information you should know, that’s the number they will be texting to.
Bear in mind that India is a huge country, over-populated and that there are some itineraries that only take place once or twice a week, meaning that you should try to buy your ticket a little bit in advance. I know how annoying it is when we just feel like don’t having a solid plan, but in a reality like this, if we don’t make decisions and stuck to the plan, than we will get trapped into the incapacity of leaving the place. It happened to me that I didn’t have a sleeper bed on the 36 hours train I was trying to book, and the departure day was actually 5 days ahead of the day I saw the agent, and so I was said to buy the tatkal or emergency ticket, with 24 hours in advance. In my case, I was very lucky because in the same afternoon I had the confirmation ticket in my hand. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always better to try, especially because they refund the money if your ticket is not confirmed.
Another thing to keep in mind is that we are this new wave of sensation seeking travelers, and being in the atmosphere of the train is being plunged into the Indian reality, not to mention the stunning views that one get to capture from the window.
Let me here share some useful information that you must consider when travelling Indian railways government trains.
1. Try to pick an upper bed at the sleeper class
Imagine you’re lying down on the bed where everyone choose to seat during the non-sleeping hours or where everyone that pass will stare at you from up to down, meaning your belongings won’t be safe either? This will not happen once you ask for the upper bed, because you are much on your own privacy, hidden from the curious wanderers and able to save your bags in a much safer way. So, make sure you always ask for an upper bed (sleeping class). The only bad thing about it is you don’t have a window at the bed level, but you can always go down and see the views from there.
2. Make sure you have both cold/hot weather clothing
Even if you are sleeping in a non AC class, in the night time you will be cold for sure. The train doors opened plus those 3 fans pointing towards your face will be enough to make you feel super cold. So, make sure you bring a blanket and wear socks during the night. Also bear in mind the beds are very hard so if you travel with your yoga mat that’s perfect.
Don’t forget to bring light clothes for the day time. The heat can be very extreme and the fans don’t do that much, but it’s all good, we are adaptable people, just don’t forget to have airy clothes on you and lots of water to be hydrated all the time.
3. Bring food, toilet paper and other toiletries with you
As long as you don’t mind to be eating 3 meals a day based on junky, oily, fatty food, you don’t need to worry about this aspect, but if you miss somehow a fresh slice of pineapple, some crackers to go with the chai or even some raw vegetables that you can cut and prepare on a bowl, please make sure you bring it all with you, because this is the kind of journey where you will be stopping for short periods of time, where the local vendors get in the train with the recipients of different junk food (samosa, pakora, bhajji, pattice) but also water, soda, coffee and chai.
If you couldn’t leave behind the habit of cleaning yourself with toilet paper, then don’t forget to carry it with you, as well as the toiletries, at least soap to be washing hands and face and toothbrush and paste. Nevertheless, there are some stops along the way where you will find these pikes of stuff selling some toiletries and other basic stuff.
4. Make sure you have little money change
One chai is 10 rupias, a water is going to be 20 rupias and two big samosas will cost you 30 rupias maximum, so don’t forget to change your big bills as the guy carrying the pots of Chai in a rush to fill your little cup is not going to be pleased with a 500 rupias bill. I know we sometimes forget about these little details, but we just want to make sure that we play safe and that we take the best out of our experiences, in a positive way, right? If not, a lesson is always there to be learnt.
5. Earplugs and headphones will be a must
Indians can be two extremes of the same reality. If they are sleeping (and especially after eating), they are extremely quiet and serene for hours. But if they are awake and excited on their endless conversations, oh my God, you will feel like you are in a coop. They scream, talk fast, get very enthusiastic, laugh continuously with everything and keep having a tone of voice that remember the bargainers at a public auction. This is all positive, I can tell you, since they are always in a good mood, smiling or laughing, and never finding motives to get angry or upset. Their mind’s content doesn’t take them to those negative moods, where everything is a good starting point to complain or be grumpy about.
Nevertheless, if you get distracted very easily or have a smooth sleep, then make sure you have some earplugs with you or, even better, your favorite tunes playing so that you can chill out and get inspired at the same time. But don’t forget to open yourself to the context you are delved into – you are in India!
6. If you like to be on your own, bring a book, but don’t forget to interact with local people
Reading, entering an author’s mind, absorbing other ideas, visions and concepts is always good, no matter the place or the situation we are immersed into. Especially in big journeys like these, be it on the bus, train, boat or plane, it’s always a great opportunity to read. So, don’t forget to bring one or more books with you, especially if you picked one subject related to the country you’re travelling in. It will make you dig deeper and awaken the curiosity for knowing more about its reality. I am right now reading J. Max Muller “India – what can it teach us?” that is a good reflection on this East Asia country and what it represents to the world, «urging the westerners to come out of their superior colonial mindset and admire and adopt the multi-dimensional efficacy that is inherent in India».
Even though, we should never forget that the best book is the one of our lives, the best story, the best novel, the best documentary is the one contemplated in the sum of moments that take place in our lives, because we open ourselves to the world, to the people and to the situations.
7. Bring a money belt to keep your belongings with you all the time
You are in an Indian public transport, you are foreigner and probably white, you carry your life with you and if you see yourself loosing it, that can be dictating the end of your freedom, so, in order to avoid these situations, the best is to make sure you always keep your important belongings on you: passport, money, credit card, flights information, should be inside a money belt, that you carry 24/7, no matter where you go.
8. Don’t forget to bring a waterproof backpack cover
Don’t forget that you will probably have no room to put your backpack but under the seats below, so it’s important that you protect it with a waterproof cover. Sometimes there are kids messing on the train or even the water that comes from the washrooms can be on the floor, (try to be away of toilets, though), so, play clean and safe. That’s super light to carry and super easy to compact after using.
I hope that these tips were somehow useful for you. And, of course, if you have any information to be added here, please share. Let’s be better together.
By Margarida Pimenta