How not to take a train in India

After three weeks in the Himalayas, flying into Varanasi was a bit of a shock to the system for Steve and I. We went from a part of the world where yaks and people take the place of cars and technology straight into rush hour in an Indian city of over a million people. If you’ve not been to India, rush hour – or any other hour, for that matter – is exactly as chaotic as you would imagine it to be.

Fortunately, our hotel proved to be a haven of calm overlooking the river Ganges. After navigating Varanasi’s back alleys because our taxi from the airport was far too big to fit, we found some much needed respite watching the sunset over the mighty river, the far bank shrouded in haze (or smog…).

Sunset over the river Ganges in Varanasi, India

Smog, or haze, or a mixture of the two made it easy to look straight at the sun as it set.

The “thing to do” in Varanasi is to take a rowboat tour at sunrise, and indeed boatmen throng the banks of the river looking for customers. Our first bit of haggling in India went fairly smoothly – one advantage of the competitive availability of tours – and the boat proved another world apart from the bustle of the Ghats, the riverside districts of the city.

Ghats by the river Ganges in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

An elderly man watches the world go by at Bhadaini Ghat.

The river is the focal point of activity in the city – everything happens here. People wash themselves and their clothes, drink, poo, swim, play, and cremate their loved ones – and all these things happen within a few metres of each other. Unsurprisingly, the river is horribly polluted, although our rowing guide was very keen to convince us that it was perfectly clean. To demonstrate, he took a few big gulps of river water and encouraged us to do the same; we politely declined.

Ghats by the river Ganges in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

Beautiful, ramshackle temples line the riverside – one could spend a long time just visiting them all to find out what’s going on inside!

Unfortunately, Steve was not as restrained during the rest of our time in Varanasi. His downfall was a glass of orange juice, lovingly prepared by a street vendor – with water straight from the Ganges.

A few days later, as we prepared to board our overnight train to Agra, where we would visit the Taj Mahal, his stomach uttered its first grumbling complaints. He shouldered his bag happily enough, though, when the announcement board showed a platform number for our train. Our bunks were five carriages apart, as we had managed to snag the last couple of tickets for the sold-out train. I was not surprised, therefore, to find a man complacently sitting in my space. He was adamant that it was his bunk, though, and after some manic gesticulating it transpired that this was not, in fact, our train; it had simply stopped at the platform where ours should have stopped.

I hopped off and ran along the train to tell Steve to get off – I found him sitting hunched over with his head in his hands. My panicky yelling got his attention, but so did the fact that the train had just started moving. There was nothing left to do – with the train picking up speed every second, an increasingly sick Steve would have to jump off and hope for the best.

And jump he did – at the last second. Missing a vendor’s cart carrying a precipitous stack of pears by mere inches, he made it without falling – although he did not look happy. The next train had better be the right one…

Taj Majal Mosque, Agra, India

A young couple sit by the Taj Mahal mosque.

Fortunately, the next train was indeed the right one, and Steve was lovingly looked after by an Indian grandmother. Noticing how miserable he looked, she gave him one of her own blankets for the night and even tucked him in.

As the sun rose in the morning, we were rewarded with this view from the a roof terrace after a bumpy taxi ride from the station. I sipped a cool lassi, although Steve was in no condition to be consuming anything by this point. Unsurprisingly, I had to visit the Taj by myself that morning…

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The Taj Mahal on a hazy morning.

Have you had similar train snafus, in India or elsewhere? I’d love to hear about them!

6 Comments

  • Oh dear, this post definitely brings back memories of travel in India! The good and the bad. So many train journeys. I did it the other way around – India first and then the Himalayas and still remember the contrast between Varanasi and Pokhara. Beautiful photos!

    • Jon says:

      Were you not a fan of the train journeys? We both had a lot of fun on subsequent ones, when we both felt 100%. Riding in crowded third class compartments with kids running throughs selling chai at each stop…good times! The chai-chai-chai-chai calls are still in my head sometimes.

      What did you get up to in Pokhara – did you walk the Annapurna Circuit?

      Pleased you like my photos!

  • Getting sick on a train, or having to use the bathroom on the train = the worst. I feel for Steve. Did he get better?

    • Jon says:

      He did – eventually. I went to see the Taj Mahal that morning on my own (we arrived at the hostel at 6am), he stayed in bed for the day and went the next day. He actually stayed in Agra a night longer – I didn’t stay at all and went straight on to Jaipur with a Swedish guy (also called Jonathan…) we met en route. Steve caught up to us the day after, and ate – to use a German idiom – like a combine harvester for the next week or so :)

  • Oh my! I think that’s my biggest nightmare – travelling with an upset stomach.
    I usually don’t take trains. One time, during a toilet break, I confused my bus with another one and got on, sat comfortably, not even realising that my stuff wasn’t there. I realised I was on the wrong bus, when the passenger, whose seat I was occupying, turned up.
    And I also travelled on a very small boat in Laos with very painful stomach cramps.

    • Jon says:

      Yeah, can’t have been fun at all! But we learned a lot about the implications of the complete lack of privacy in Indian culture: to us Westerners it’s often obnoxious, but when times go bad it means people look after each other so much more. Can’t wait to go back to India, and starting out with a very different mindset :)

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