The Neelachal Not-So-Express

I think the Ganga Benjamin-ji Express has delivered relatively well on the Ganga and the Benjamin-ji, but I haven’t said anything yet about an actual train. I’ve taken three train journeys in India so far: the Dehradun Shtbdi Express from Delhi to Hardiwar (6 hours), the Hw Hwh S F Express night train from Hardiwar to Varanasi (13 hours), and most recently a day and night adventure on the Neelachal Express from Varanasi back to Delhi (20 hours).

I showed up at the Varanasi train station an hour early, as every Indian insisted I must, only to find the train running an hour late. So I had ample time to wander the platform with my backpacks, taking pictures with my Canon G11 and discovering the diverse ecosystem of life and commerce at an Indian rail station.

The passing travelers come in all shapes, sizes and castes – from the young families sleeping on blankets near the entrance to the maharaja arriving with enough baggage and porters to supply a tiger hunting expedition. And then there were the tea and samosa stand attendants, the “Indian toothbrush” saleswomen, the officious platform security men, the track sweepers, track repairmen and track scavengers.

Booking a train ticket can be an adventure in Indian bureaucracy. Seats sell out weeks in advance and there is a complicated system of waiting lists, tatkal quota tickets, tourist quota tickets, and etc. I got my tickets a couple of weeks ahead of time. Knowing that it would likely be an over-long journey and not knowing how I would be faring, I opted for the highest class ticket available, in the A.C. Tier 2 cabin. There are at least 8 cabin classes on the Indian rails, from A.C. Tier 1 to Unreserved 2nd Class and the names don’t always make sense. A First Class seat is actually priced somewhere in the middle.

Although my train got off to a late start, and probably as a consequence was shunted off to a siding every hour to shudder as another train swooshed past, making us even later, the journey was a pleasure. The cabin I occupied was luxurious compared to the bare wooden benches further down the line. The train runs through the night, so in A.C. Tier 2 I had an entire bed.
I got lucky with a bottom berth facing forward with a long window beside it. I lounged back on a stack of wool blankets and watched the country-side roll by: endless fields of rice and crops, cattle, goats and pigs, small dusty villages, kids and young men playing cricket and an odd golf-like game. It was a Saturday.

The trackside is also a favorite place for many to take their morning constitutional. Maybe they find the trains inspirational? Perhaps they like to put on a show for the moving audience? Either way, it did not go unappreciated by me as we passed a disproportionate number of people – at least 20 that I noticed – squatting in the dust beside the tracks taking a shit.

By the time the train pulled into the New Delhi station, five hours late, at 3 o’clock in the morning, I was sleeping soundly in my berth. The conductor drew the curtain to check I was awake and it was actually with some reluctance that I prepared to detrain, ending that last, long Indian rail journey. Though, I will admit, I wasn’t displeased to be on the way to the airport to catch my flight to Kerala instead of the 46 hour train ride south.

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2 Responses to The Neelachal Not-So-Express

  1. jane lahr says:

    Can’t wait to here about Kerala!


  2. catherine says:

    have you read shanteram yet? its pretty great and there is a very memorable train scene! main charecter gets an unreserved 2nd class ticket on the suggestion of his guide who feels it will be a mark of pride and authenticity. sounded like a horor film.

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