India is a very big country. And I wanted to see a lot of it. For that reason I took a series of trains making a horseshoe shape around the country. Down the east coast alongside the Bay of Bengal, from Andra Pradesh across to Goa on the Arabic Sea with a stop over in Hampi before striking north to the end of the line in Himachal Pradesh.
I must say that the Indian train service is a marvel. Each region has a subtle nuance and charm in the way that it does things and perhaps this says something about the character of the people in each of these vastly diverse states. I loved each of my journeys for differing reasons. At times I thought I might lose my mind over some of the seemingly imbecilic rules and policies but in the end the whole thing worked like clockwork, albeit in its own inimitable, typically Indian way.
I voiced these frustrations to Bibhu, my mate in Kolkota and was given this piece of advice, who’d been handed down this wisdom from his father, Shubanker: ‘son, there are somethings in India which you will never understand, I’ve spent a lifetime trying- don’t waste your time! Just go with it or go round it.’
The Darjeeling Mail
NJP to Sealdah
10 and a half hours
My first foray into the Indian railway system had been a ballsy, last minute affair. A quick decision to leave the cool peace of Darjeeling to travel rapidly overnight to Kolkota had delivered me to New Jalpaiguri (NJP) station where I optimistically bought a general class ticket for the ten hour night train to Sealdah station.
I had time on my hands at NJP which was a good thing because I had to book my luggage onto the train. I wheeled my bike over to the parcel office on platform three and waited patiently to be seen. For a Sunday afternoon this office was busy with a long line of customers, each jostling and interrupting the other to be seen first.
I felt at a slight disadvantage since my Hindi was not upto the advanced level required for this particular task, in situations like these actions speak louder than words, so I barged to the front waving my ticket, pointing at my bicycle. This worked marvellously. I removed the panniers, bundled them together and had a man stitch a cloth sack around them. This bundle together with the bike were labelled and placed next to the platform ready to be loaded onto the 20:00 departure.
The Darjeeling Mail conjured images of steaming tea cups with a touch of brandy, a civilised supper in the comprehensive dining car, followed by a comfortable sleep in a snug berth. In First Class AC there is no doubt that the experience mirrors that dreamy dream. In general class, I was to a man, the final passenger to board the train. I stepped from the bustling platform, having supervised the loading of my bike and luggage safely into the parcel car, to the acrid stench of piss and sweat of the seething mass of my new friends.
I may have been the only person not surprised to see me in General Class (GC) for the ten hour journey to Indias third largest city. ‘I like the foreigner who travels without reservation in GC’ chuckled the young Pink Floyd fan stood in the aisle. ‘Here, you may take my seat, I prefer to stand’. I wedged myself on the already cramped row of six between two couples, trying not to be six feet two and broad shouldered.
The Coromandel Express
Howrah to Hospete
For the 1,932km journey south I had a reservation in 2AC. I would have a bed, air conditioning and food on tap aboard this train. A welcome improvement on my previous rail excursion. Conversely, after the simple order of the NJP parcel office, the chaos of Howrah station was a shock to the system. I carefully picked my way between the colossal stacks of crates and boxes being moved by a bevy of forklift trucks, men and trolleys to the window at the top of the parcel yard.
I was sent to a small red hut to get a stamp on my form, to a second window to copy the form then finally back to the first window to pay the 383 rupee fee. Aside from the seemingly pointless to-ing and fro-ing things felt oddly straightforward. Too straightforward to be Indian. Too easy to be correct. I lumbered clumsily to the platform with my half dozen heavy bags- I had not been given the chance to place them into the luggage car as a parcel. The train was being loaded as I arrived on platform 22. As I passed the luggage car I said goodbye to my bike and staggered onto the train into the air conditioned sanctuary of 2AC.
I stuffed my bags under the seats of the four man berth and hopped onto bed number 19. At around ten I switched off the fan, the whole compartment had already done so, since the temperature had dropped to a comfortable degree. Sanjeev on the top bunk complained immediately that he was too hot. ‘The rest of the carriage has turned them off too- it’s bed time’ I pleaded. ‘It’s a bit odd to sleep wrapped in blankets with a fan on full Sanjeev’ I remarked. ‘You have never met anyone like Sanjeev. There is only one. The fans must remain’ exclaimed Sanjeev. I went to bed, leaving the fan directly blowing into Sanjeevs face at point blank distance on the top bunk. I had no words now. Not for the one and only Sanjeev.
The train to Hospete was not direct, there was an eight hour layover at Vijaywada where I would connect with another night train that evening. I stood at the head of the platform waiting for the guards to open the luggage car to remove my bike. A couple of minutes passed, nothing was doing, I asked the guard to crack on with it- the train would leave in five minutes. The guard said that the luggage car had moved to the rear. I wasn’t convinced but ran down the platform anyway. ‘Nothing there brother- open the door. I know it’s in there. I saw it being loaded’. The man smiled a thin smile under his sinister strip of moustache. ‘Come on man. Look sharp!’ The train pulled out, chugg chugg chugging into the distance. I felt sick.
‘The seal was for Chennai. It cannot be broken until the train reached its destination. It’s law’ mumbled the manager of the parcel office. ‘So how do I get the bike?’ I bellowed. ‘We put it on a train to Hospete, it arrives on Saturday morning’. It was Wednesday. I would travel to Hampi with six big bags and no bike. ‘Take the train this evening and we call you when bicycle in station’. I reluctantly agreed and dragged my cargo to the cloakroom to be stored for the day, putting my faith in the ordered chaos of the paradoxically efficiencies of the Indian rail service.
Koppal to Hubli
Three hours twenty minutes
I’d spent a varied eight days in Hampi. The first four being violently sick, suffering with severe dehydration; a combination of travelers congregating from all over India in one place creating a particularly virulent strain of ‘Delhi belly’, a sudden increase in temperature from low thirties to over forty degrees (due to travelling rapidly from north to south) and a foolish, schoolboy error on my part- collecting my bike, doing yoga and meditating consecutively in the furnace that is Hampi without taking food or water for several hours. This series of factors set me up for a rather miserable end to my 31st year.
Happily, I met some really cool rock climbing folks and for my birthday spent the day swimming and climbing in one of the worlds best centres for bouldering. I even got a birthday cake- lemon drizzle with a huge cup of tea. Thanks Chris and the lads for cheering me up. Fully recovered from my ills I was keen to get over to Arambol in Goa. I would be visiting my friend Holly for a few weeks; a welcome break from the bike and a chance to chill with the eclectic hippy crowd that north Goa is famous for.
I left Hampi at 5am to make the best of the pre noon hours, anything strenuous in the heat of the day would be foolhardy given how easily I’d succumbed to dehydration previously. I made it to Koppal, a 60km ride out of Hampi, and realising that there was a train station there I settled in for the day on the platform; an Indian station is a great place to while away a few hours since there’s shade, cold water on tap and lots going on to take interest in; a perfect place to see India in transit.
Since I was already at the station I enquired about the possibility of a train to Hubli (a main hub station to south west India), and found that a train with a luggage car would leave at 7pm. Taking this train would save me a couple of days cycling and make the most of the rest of that evening. For less than two pounds I would travel 210km in just three hours- what Kevin Bacon would call ‘a no brainer’.
Hubli to Vasco Da Gama
Four hours 12 minutes
I sat down in front of Soonam barefoot and tired with sleep still in my eyes. I had big plans today; I would travel by train to Goa to visit my friend Holly, skipping out 203km of cycling on treacherously hot and dusty South West Indian roads. It was Sunday 21 March and that was my plan.
Soonam was blushing. I was laughing. Her employer at the Shiva Travel Agency was enjoying embarrassing her with the suggestion that she and I get married. I went along with the rouse. ‘Do you like cycling?’ I asked with a grin. ‘We’ll get you a bike, we leave tomorrow. How about it?’. Soonam was crimson now. ‘You crazy man. I will stay here, you go now!’. The joke was up. I trundled off to the station to book the train.
Rolling into the entrance I was shouted down by armed guards. My lighthearted banter was not reciprocated, simple logic ignored. Off to a shaky start then. At the ticket office the usual misinformation and non-knowledge of essential facts such as whether the train had a luggage car or not was an expected annoyance.
The parcel-office-ticket-window-station-master-grumpy-man-helpful-man carousel was in full swing. The outcome culminated in my buying a ticket for the next train only to be told that the bike would travel separately; after the Vijaywada-Chennai debacle this would not do; I needed to leave Vasco Da Gama (VSG) immediately upon arrival. I gave up and went back to sit with Soonam to continue my attempt to whisk her back to England on a bicycle.
Vasco Da Gama to Agra
Arriving into VSG early in the afternoon following a hot and dusty four hours and twenty minutes I was keen to get on to Arambol. The sleepy station staff had other ideas. There was a long delay getting the bike out of the luggage car; the parcel master taking his good sweet time to bless those carrying cargo with his presence at the end of the long train; the wait made the worse for occasional yet powerful wafts of fishy stench. This close to the coast I assumed the cause would be a nearby fishing vessel or perhaps a container on alnther of the stationary trains. It was neither of these things. It was my luggage. Sitting three inches deep in a pool of fish stink inside the parcel car were all my worldly possessions.
Finally I got on the road to Arambol. But with a long delay at the station and a quick stop to hose down my reeking panniers dsylight failed me, 30km short of north Goa, I pulled up in the Goan capital of Panjim. An unexpected stay over here was quite the treat. A Portuguese port town of antiquity the growing city is blessed with sublimely preserved Portuguese architecture, particularly the old town and the Catholic Church. A welcome reminder of cheerful, orderly European climes in Deep South India.
Next day the road turned quickly from busy dual carriageway to meandering country lanes. I was finally in north Goa and the change tangible. Laid back and lassiez-faire- the vibe resonated deeply with my inner hippy. Time to meditate, swim and relax. I met Holly early evening in time to see the local legend Attilla play his psychodelic rock set at 21 coconuts (where ironically they don’t serve coconuts), we ate a delicious pizza and psyched out with the ageing hippies of Arambol.
I had two blissed out weeks in Arambol. I was fortunate to fall in with a young crowd of lovelies from all corners of the globe by dint of hanging out with Holly. There is a very special community in this place, a broad church of nomadic souls seeking the brighter side of life through simple actions and pleasant words. Life is good in Goa.
Agra to Delhi
Six hours 43 minutes
The Taj Mahal is said to be the most beautiful building in the world. Sadly though, there is no where to park a touring bicycle and a bunch of luggage. I took the advice of a local guide and headed over the bridge to the Maj T gardens, a popular vantage point to take a photograph of the iconic structure. The sun was beginning to rise behind the Red Fort, reflecting brightly off the surface of the river, low in its banks, pebbles shining glossily like a million black mirrors.
I took a wrong turn at the small roundabout and found myself in an eerie mausoleum full of ancient tombs, wild peacocks speaking in their inimitable fashion, resplendent plumage fanned wide, strutting brashly across the rooftops of the long dead. Further along there was a camel camp. Four and two wheeled carriages of gold and silver plate, coloured too to match the splendour of the resident peacocks, lay still ahead of another busy day varying tourists to and fro around the grounds of grounds of the Taj.
Within a few moments I was seemingly back where I started nearby the entrance gate only this time I was alone in the wooded area behind the security guards and perimeter fences. I investigated further, parked my bike by a tree and steathily moved closer to the target. Suddenly I was high up above the gardens scaling a double wall with a narrow walkway within, surrounded by huge monkeys and just a few hundred metres away from the bulbous head of the worlds most beautiful building. This I felt was a stroke of luck; good karma for an inquisitive traveler; I sat awhile mesmerised by this monument to true love.
Later that day, across the river from the Taj, I met a renowned Czech pphotographer. We chatted awhile, took a snap or two of the great attraction then took tea at her favourite chai stand. We joked that should I ever return to London I look up her daughter Juditha. Matchmaking in Agra. Marvellous. I stuck around with the chai waller, napped an hour in his bed then took a meal watching the steady stream of tourists pass by to make the picture. By four o’clock I’d shared the story of my journey fairly comprehensively. Sarvir called up his journalist friend and so I held a press conference, posed for pictures and shook many hands. Afterwards, I invited an Austrian girl named Anna to dinner later that evening, we would be joining my old friend Louise and her travel buddy Hamish in the main bazaar.
We met at the boutique Homestay where Lou Lou and Hamish were staying and sank a few beers. Spirits were soaring. The day at the Taj had exceeded expectations on all sides. We took dinner at a local restaurant, feasted heartily in celebration of our meeting up, quite by chance, halfway across the world. After dinner Anna and I took a walk to the hostel. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to see the Taj by night?’ Anna sighed. ‘It would’ I agreed. ‘Didn’t you say that you got close to it today?’ Asked Anna. ‘I did. Really close. Would you like to go there now?’ I suggested. ‘Yes! Let’s do it!’ Squealed Anna excitedly. And so it was that we snook into the gardens of Taj Mahal by moonlight to admire the most romantic building in the world.
Delhi to Kalka
Three hours six minutes
The aptly named Shatabdi Express would be my final sojourn by rail in India. Kalka is the furthest north one can travel on the Indian mainline before the Himalayan Mountain Railway takes up the charge. I chanced my arm to take the bike up to Shimla on the fabulously monikered Himalayan Queen but was flatly refused. In Delhi I got drunk with backpackers in the Lord Of The Drinks- the best theme bar you’ve never been to. I was in the Indian capital to buy extra long screws for my racks, a tip from Julien, a four year round the world cyclist I met in Hampi. The screws bought and paid for I was keen to get out of the smog and heat to the fresh air of the mountains.
The train was not the fastest, but it was the cleanest, most modern and cosmopolitan. The train was showing a selection of movies, soaps and had radio options too. The screens in the headrest of the seat in front serving as housing for the monitors. Very cool. I chose Die Hard III, the one where Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson save the day with a series of car chases and swear words. The journey was catered as part of the extortionate fee, 685Rs for this distance made the trip by far the most expensive yet. The samosa, cup of black chai, weird marshmallow thing and a pack of savoury snack scarcely justified this amount. I’m still waiting for the veg course I selected when booking the ticket.
Halfway through the film, the bit where the crazy Dutch bad guys have blown up the vault and begun to steel the gold, I started to feel mild stomach cramps. I observed them, breathed through it and continued to enjoy the monstrous action fest before me. The train was emptying now. Passengers thinned out to a handful of business types getting out of the city for the weekend. Bruce and Sam were getting close to foiling the evil plot now, Bruce has comandered a dump truck and I driving through a hidden tunnel, Sam is pottering about a baseball ground not getting shot by a sniper. Those cramps again. That paneer masala at the station was a bad choice. The train is approaching Kalka, about twenty minutes more now- the final stop. End if the line. Bruce has dodged relentless machine gun fire and single handedly taken down the helicopter with the evil fuckbuddies in it. Just as Bruce utters the immortal ‘yippee-ki-yay’ I had to make a mad dash to the bathroom and Shatabdi Express.
Please excuse typos and brevity,
this was sent from my iPhone