27 hours on a train in India

A 1500 kilometer journey from Pune to Delhi in the sleeper class

By Lukas Sommer In India 8 MINUTES READING TIME

Every day, around 17.5 million people travel by train in India. That’s almost five times of whole New Zealand on a train. I came through India during my trip around the world and paid a visit to my cousin in Pune. The city is located in Maharashtra, Western India and holds over 3 million people (that’s almost all of New Zealand in one city). I was new to train travel in the subcontinent and planned to board a train to Delhi. An adventure began…

The man at the counter in the congested train station told me everything was booked for months in advance. “No chance, Sir!” he mumbled. I backed up from the queue and saw the train already leaving without me. Perhaps I should’ve have come earlier than the day before departure to buy my ticket, I thought. But then I remembered my cousin telling me about seats allocated for tourists and queued again. The man was bewildered to see me again, but surprisingly knew about the tourist tickets and told me I had to go to the railway station administration office to file an application for those. I still had to buy the ticket right there, for the case a seat opened up.

“What if I can’t get a seat allocated?” I asked.
“Money lost”, he nodded.

I left shaking my head, not quite sure how I could buy a ticket for a seat that didn’t exist. I’m German after all.

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Pune’s train station splits into several warehouses to load and unload goods, busy with workers and many others, washing and drying clothes, eating or just standing around. It took me over an hour to find the tiny administration office, everyone knew where it wasn’t. The office was packed with all sorts of paperwork, very old computers and many people in tiny cubicles. After explaining my situation to the room, someone ripped a used piece of paper in half, handed it over and I told me write down my name, passport number and train route. I handed the piece of paper to the man in the next room, who nodded and put it in a drawer next to his desk. “So this is gonna get me a train ticket for tomorrow?”, I wondered. I was sure it would never leave the drawer…

Somehow it did! They told me to come back in the evening, so later the same day I returned to the crowded train station. Literally every spot on the floor of the hall was now taken by a standing or lying person. The application miraculously left the office and a reservation was confirmed at the ticket counter, a seat in the sleeper class was mine. I couldn’t believe it and what seemed impossible just took perseverance and goodwill, as usual. Or maybe it’s just India. I imagined some poor Indians being kicked off the train for the tourist, hopefully I was wrong and they really had extra beds for tourists. I will never know… but early next morning, I boarded the train.

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Pune to Delhi is scheduled with 27 to 30 hours, a 1500km climb up north. The sleeper wagons have barred windows, usually they stay open the whole time. Air circulates and that’s a real life saver unless it rains. Arriving where my seat was supposed to be, there was not an inch of space as a family with more kids then I could count occupied the compartment, looking at me suspiciously. My name had been published on the board outside in the train station, there was no mistake – but did I board the right wagon, or even train? Somebody came to my rescue, speaking a few words in Hindi to the family and shifting some luggage from the other compartment. A seat got free in the next compartment and I met my new travel group, a good dozen young Koran students.

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I was the only foreigner on the wagon and everyone wanted to hang out. The boys traveling from the very south to Delhi for over two days took me in, shared their food and Chai, prayed and studied by my side and curiously observed everything I was doing. After a while, I felt safe and looked after.

“What is your religion? Are you married?”
“I have no religion and no wife.”

The kids looked at me with worried faces and I think they felt a little sorry.

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At 4 a.m. everyone got up and the carpet for prayer was carefully spread on sheets of old newspapers between the seats. “Sleep, sleep”, one of the boys whispered, while gesturing to close my eyes.

During the journey we rolled past desolate dry fields and dystopian landscapes, littered train stations with a stench that was hard to describe. Ocassionally I spotted men and women that sat out in the fields near the train lines for their morning toilet, equipped with little water containers. There was an incredible amount of litter along the rails, every bit of garbage would go straight out of the window. At some point I had a small garbage bag under my seat and felt unsure what to do with it. One of my new friends looked at me with a perplexed face, took the bag out of my hand and pushed it through the window opening. 17.5 million people on a train throwing their garbage out the window…

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The open windows were a blessing, I had the wind in my face and the taste of freedom on my lips and after almost 30 hours, the train gently rolled into the Delhi railway station. The special world I dove into and managed to capture with my camera will be long remembered. How different this was to where I come from made an impact on me and gave me food for thought. And that’s what travel should do, right?

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Editor’s Note: Lukas is a photographer, travel writer and web developer, traveling the world bartering his skills for experiences. He started to travel in 2013 and his journey has led him from Europe to Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Portugal, Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. He works with sustainable businesses, eco-tourism, charity and community projects that often need a specialist and don’t have the funding to pay for an agency or professional. I took notice of his great works when he spread his travel experiences on a local German website – and I am still inspired by his amazing stories and his way of life.
Don’t miss out on visiting: www.goodthingseverywhere.com


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1 Comment
  1. Niraj Yadav April 14, 2016

    Loved it Lucas! I am from Mumbai and I am so fond of Sleeper class train travel in India. It has taught me many lessons which I believe would have been difficult to learn from somewhere else.
    I wish to write a series of stories from my Sleeper class travel 🙂

    Reply

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