Good Morning India, How Are You? Riding the North Frontier Railway
You will probably meet very few people (who can afford to travel) in the US who have ever taken an overnight trip in a railway sleeper car. You will probably meet very few such people in India who haven't. Long-distance trains remain so much more popular in India than in the US for a number of reasons. First, they're significantly cheaper than air travel, and they go just about everywhere, while airports are comparatively rare (and frequent convenient airline service even rarer). Second, there is little serious competition from road travel: many people don't own cars, and those who do are reluctant to subject them to multi-day trips on Indian roads (often in poor condition, generally hazardous), even if there were a dependable support system of motels, gas stations, etc., which there isn't.
Third, Indian trains are great, that's all there is to it. (Not that American ones aren't; in my experience, compartments in Amtrak sleeper cars are lots of fun, but they haven't got the same mix of sociability and practicality). Since everybody travels by train here, there are lots of options available. These include:
- Unreserved second class. No berths or chairs, just benches and overhead luggage racks, usually occupied by passengers. Technically there are supposed to be no more passengers than designated seats, but in practice people crowd in till every corner is full. The luggage-rack occupants move about the car by walking barefoot on the raised palms of helpful standees. I took a nine-hour ride to Jodhpur in unreserved second class once, and got to sit down for about two of them. (Remember that trip, David?) Never again.
- Sleeper class. There are three (I think) tiers of plank berths; during the day all passengers use the lowest one as a bench. There are bars on the carriage windows but no glass in them, and at stations the vendors of snacks and sweets and anything else crowd to the windows to sell their wares through the bars. In theory, this is less crowded because every passenger must have a berth reservation, but they often look pretty packed.
- 3-tier Air-Conditioned. Like the sleeper class except with glazed sealed windows, climate control (if it's working) and padded berths. More expensive and less zooey.
- 2-tier A/C. For us rich folks who can afford a whole thirty-five dollars to go halfway across the subcontinent. Only two tiers of padded berths: on one side of the corridor, arranged in groups of four (2U, 2L) perpendicular to the side of the carriage, and on the other side in U/L pairs parallel to it. Each mini-compartment is screened off by curtains. Families and other groups generally take up the 4-berths, cozily chatting, snacking, amusing the kids, playing guitar, you name it. Best for sightseeing is the lower bunk in a 2-berth, with a big window right next to you. After the conductor checks your ticket, the attendant comes by with your sheets, blanket, towel, and pillow. Another attendant comes by later to take your order for dinner, and if you feel like shelling out 30--50 rupees for Veg. Meal he'll come back at 8:00 with a tray of heated packets of rice and curry, dal, yogurt, and a plastic pouch of water---all quite hygienic and much tastier than airline food. If you feel like something different or get hungry waiting for dinner, there are innumerable vendors hawking everything from chips to samosas to newspapers (okay, you can't eat the newspapers, but you know what I mean) to sodas to tomato soup to seasoned chickpeas. (Hygiene more uncertain.) Not to mention the ubiquitous Chai Guy, who paces the corridors from morning to night with a big kettle in one hand and a basket of little cups in the other, repeating "Chai, chai, chai...Chai, chai, chai...".
If you get tired of sitting and want a little excitement, you can go to the restroom. The Indian-style squat toilets are more common and seem to keep a little cleaner than the Western-style toilets, plus you can look down between your feet and see the track rushing by beneath you. Please do not be tempted by the prospect of greater stability and security into using the restroom while the train is stopped at a station! that's extra unsanitary.
But the best part is just watching out the window; most urban tourists will never see the real countryside except from a train. Patchwork squares of grain fields and grazing land alternate between narrow raised footpaths; a bicyclist with a sack of rice on the carrier pedals down a little road to a distant village; an old man and a toddler squat in a pasture, keeping an eye on a few cows; a girl pulls a bucket up out of the big stone well or works the handle of the village pump; a slow brown river may have women washing saris or a farmer giving his water buffaloes a bathe. Then once the sun has set and dinner's over, you pull the curtains and shake out the blanket and fall asleep to the rhythm of the rails.
—— Kim Plofker
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