Saturday, October 2, 2010

On the train. The Shatabdi Express.

When I booked my trip to Amritsar, I had two travel options on how I wanted to get there - either by private car or by train. Both journeys would have taken about the same amount of travel time - 7 hours each way. Car would have been a comfortable option. So, obviously I took the train :-)

Actually, I took the train not because I wanted to have a miserable, uncomfortable trip but I thought it would make for a good adventure. I wasn't wrong.

I opted to take the Swarna Shatabdi Express over the regular rail line for one reason and that was it's air conditioned. I'm not good in hot weather in it's hot in India.

The train was scheduled to leave New Delhi at 7:20am. To be safe, Parvinder arranged for the hotel driver to take me to the train station, which is a 10 minute drive away, at 6am. I thought that was a tad too early to be leaving the hotel but I also thought better to be there early than to miss the train.

So, I was down in the lobby at 6am. The sun had not yet even risen when I got into the car.

There was little traffic on the streets of Delhi at 6am so we barreled down the streets -- a first for me in all my car rides through Delhi.

We arrived at the train station 10 minutes later. I got out of the taxi and followed the crowd walking towards what I was hoping was the entrance to the train station. As I neared the entrance, I could see the train tracks on the other side and so I knew I was headed in the right direction.

The line of people was headed towards a security checkpoint and it looked the guards were checking ID against ticket. I had my eticket with me so I was reaching into my backpack to get my passport out when I felt someone tapping on my shoulder.

I looked up to see a young man. He asked me where I was heading and I told I needed to find the platform for the train to Amritsar. He asked to look at my eticket and so I showed it to him....thinking that perhaps there was the platform information printed on it and that I had just not seen the information. After looking at my eticket, he told that the eticket would not get me on the train, that I needed to get a paper ticket as well. Huh?? I thought that's odd. Parvinder would have told me to get the paper ticket - he was very, very clear with all his other directions.

The young man told me I had to go to the IRCTC offices, located nearby, and turn in my eticket for a paper ticket. I had time to spare so I asked him for directions to the office. Oh....you go down this street, right, left, around the corner....blah blah blah. I couldn't keep track of his directions so I told him to go with and show me the office.

So, we left the line and walked out of the station, down one block and turned onto another street. A short distance down, he walked inside a shop and I followed. The place was crammed with people. He led me to a desk behind which sat an older man. He looked at my eticket and basically told me I need a paper ticket and that I would have to pay for it. How much, I asked. He didn't reply. Instead, he told me that riding the train was not safe, that going by car would be much better. By now, the caution antennas that started creeping up my neck when I first encountered the younger man were now screaming their way to well above my head.

I took the ticket back, said no thank you to all their offers and walked out of the shop. Sheesh....what a waste of time. But I had no time to dwell on what had just happened. I had a train to catch.

I headed back to the station and stood back in line.

Once I got beyond the entrance gate, I had to figure out which platform I needed to stand on to wait for the train.

One thing I've learned in my travels. If you need to get help and you need to find someone who can speak English, your best bet is to find someone *young* i.e., in their teens or twenties or even thirties as it's more likely that someone of this age will speak some English.

Luckily, a pair of young women walked and I showed them my ticket. Lo and behold, I was already standing on the Platform 1 which was the platform for the train to Amritsar. They then pointed out,on the ticket, where the coach and seat number information was. I thanked them and then made my way to the part of the platform that matched the coach number. I was going to be riding in Coach 8, seat 70.

The train arrived a few minutes after 7am and everyone started to board.   Of course, I boarded on the wrong end of the car so I found myself having to walk all the way to the front.  I had the window seat.

My first impression of the train.  Well, in India, I was in a first class coach.  By American standards, you might think I was in third class.  Nonetheless, I had my own seat and it was comfortable.  I was only traveling with my backpack so I had no luggage to worry about.  I settled into my seat and waited for the other passengers to board.

A few minutes later, a very, very well dressed Indian woman sat down in the seat next to me.  Obviously wealthy but unfortunately, she didn't speak much English so I thought it was going to be a quiet ride for me.

Soon the train started up and we inched our way out of the station.  It was early morning and there was condensation on the window so I really couldn't see much of the landscape that we were passing by.  For some reason, shading perhaps, my window was tinted pink.

Then, I saw the conductor making his way down the aisle.  As he neared my seat, I was thinking back to my encounter with the young man and that whole eticket/paper ticket nonsense.  Would my eticket be enough?  I guess I would find out.  I handed the conductor my ticket and passport.  Without comment, he made a mark on my ticket and handed it and my passport back to me.  Worry over. 

Next distraction.  A young train attendant coming down the aisle with breakfast which was a pack of cookies, two caramel candies, two paper sachets each containing a bag of tea, a packet of sugar and packet of dried milk.  A second attendant came down the aisle a few minutes later with individual carafes of hot water and plastic cups. 

I made myself a cup of tea and munched on the cookies and sweets.  Not bad.



By now, the train was making its way through the Indian countryside.  We chugged by fields and small villages.  The condensation on my window was gone and I was able to make out the landscape through the pink tint of the glass.
   
Next distraction and I needed distractions as this was a 7 hour train ride and I was in no mood to read.  The elegantly dressed and coiffed and bejeweled woman who was sitting next to me was replaced by a young man who turned out to be her son.  He spoke perfect English so I was at least able to have a conversation with him.  He and his family were on their way to Amritsar for the weekend.  Typical teenager, he knew more about his cellphone, Facebook, and video games than he did about Amritsar :-)
Nonetheless, it was nice having someone to chat and share a laugh or two with.  I shot this video of my seat mate  (I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I couldn't catch his name despite several times asking him - I think it was his accent that did me in) with my Blackberry so it's not the best quality but you can see, from the video, just what a nice kid he was.


Every now and again, we would take a break from conversation and I turned my attention to the passing views outside my window.

  
Next distraction.  More food. Turned out that the first meal was just a snack.  This was breakfast.  Same process as before.  Attendant #1 drops off food; Attendant #2 swings by with the carafe of hot water and plastic cup. Okay, remember this is India so no bacon and eggs or croissants or bagels or anything remotely *western* in terms of food.  Breakfast was a vegetable cutlet (aka *pattie*) served with finger chips (aka *french fries*) and green peas.
The cutlet was surprisingly tasty and I had a nice cup to go with it.


My final distraction was that my young companion soon left his seat.  I had no idea why he left  but an older Sikh gentleman, who did not speak a lick of English, replaced him.  Now, it was time to pull out the reading material.

7 hours is a long time to be on any ride but with all my distractions, time truly flew by.  Before I knew it, we were pulling into the train station in Amritsar.

Parvinder had arranged for my driver to meet up with me at the station.  I followed Parvinder's instructions to exit the station and look for a model of the Golden Temple.  The driver would be standing there, holding up a sign with my name on it.  I followed Parvinder's instructions to the tee and sure enough, there was a young man waiting for me.  We introduced ourselves. His name was Aman.  I followed him out of the station and to the car.  Off we went! 

The next day I was back on the train to Delhi.  Another 7 hour journey.  This time, I would take the afternoon train which would leave Amritsar at 5pm.
I arrived at the train station about an hour and half early.  Surprisingly, it was a very clean station.  I found a seat to sit on and people watched the wait time away.




A small crew of painters were putting on a new coat of white paint on the station walls.  I nervously watched as they climbed up and down what looked to me to be flimsy ladders made of bamboo.

It was the end of the holiday weekend so families were out in full force - kids and suitcases were everywhere!
The train left Amritsar on time and I settled into my seat.  Oddly enough, I exchanged seats twice with fellow passengers so they could sit with one another.  In the end, I found myself in a window seat in a coach filled with toddlers.  This is not going to be good because it had been a long day of sightseeing and I was hoping to get some shut eye on this trip.  So, for the kindness of my heart so that others could be together, I got a bunch of noisy kids.  Oh well.

Fortunately, this was a dinner trip so more snacks, including ice cream (!) to distract me.

A very tasty cup of tomato soup and a warm roll.

Tea and munchies

 
















Chick pea curry, cheese curry, rice and yogurt.





Ice cream!
  




After dinner, I tried to catch some sleep but no luck.  A few requests to Indian parents.  Can you please control your children so they're not climbing over every surface imaginable??  And can you please think twice before you buy your son a toy that makes a sound that becomes really annoying when he presses the play button over and over and over again.  Oh....and one last request.  Can you please have your children wind down and be asleep by 9pm rather than letting them stay up to midnight?  There must be a time limit on when a sugar high can remain a sugar high.

So, despite repeated attempts to sleep, I finally gave up.  I whipped out the reading material and tried to shut out the noise.  I was partly successful.

Mercifully, we did arrive back into Delhi but it was late....sometime after midnight.  Luckily, I had planned ahead.  I had asked Parvinder to call Gurvinder, the driver I had hired to take me to my cooking classes when I arrived in Delhi three weeks ago, to pick me up from the train station and take me back to the hotel. I knew I would not be in any mood to be haggling with taxi drivers at that hour of the day but more importantly, I knew Gurvinder and I knew I would be safe with him.  Woman travelling alone has to be careful.  Parvinder went the extra mile and gave Gurvinder my coach number so literally as I stepped off the train and onto the platform, Gurvinder was there waiting for me.  It was so nice to see his face.  As we walked to his car, he asked me how I liked Amritsar.  Gurvinder is a Sikh so he was curious about my experience.  I told him about everything I had seen and how much I had enjoyed my experience.  I must say that riding on the train made for an interesting journey.  I'm thinking that the next time I travel within India, I'm going to consider taking the train again!