Trains In India: Living The Unreserved Dream

We’ve been travelling around India, Nepal, and Cambodia for three-months now and, if I'm being honest, all I really want to do is stand in the shower with my mouth open.

When I get home I might throw a Patrick Bateman and run down the street screeching like a banshee and screaming in English, just because everyone will understand what I’m saying when I do it, and I feel that might momentarily outweigh the cons of inevitably being institutionalised.

Don’t get me wrong, this has all been fantastic and I wouldn’t change anything, but my skin is 50-shades of horrid, I’m pretty sure I’ve aged about five-years, I actually Googled ‘what day is it’ about an hour ago, my tolerance for just about anything is at an all time low (except beer – that’s at an all time high), and a larger part of me than I care to admit wants to go home, unpack the clothes I left behind, and just, you know, hang out with them.

My standards have dropped substantially, and I find myself quite seriously saying things like, ‘Only five-hours on a mini bus? Let’s do that.’ Our conversations reflect our shifting standards, and I have spoken to more people with early onset neurosis than I thought possible in this comparatively small time frame.

Angkor Beer
Angkor Beer

Chris: “I don’t think I like it here.”
Me: “You’re only saying that because the road’s on fire.”

Me: “The hot tap in the shower doesn’t work.”
Hotel manager: <looks at rusty plug> “Ohh, there was a fire.” <nods to himself>

Me: “The beer here is two-dollars, and the cocktails are three.”
Chris: “Gee, that’s expensive.”

Me: “Do you have any rooms available?”
Hotel manager: “A room!”
Me: “Yes… Do you have any?”
HM: “Yes!”
<stands still>
Me: “Can…we see one?”
HM: “You want to look!”
Me: “Yes…please.”
HM: “Come.”
<minutes later>
Me: “I think the mattress is wet.”
HM: “It’s wet!”
Me: “Yes, it’s wet.”
HM: “That’s because the cleaner boy put the bucket on the bed.” <laughs, raucously>
Me: “Do you have any others?”
HM: “Another mattress!”
Me: “Yeah, another mattress.”

That one went on for a while, before we decided he was nuts and left.

Boat Manager: “Did you buy this ticket over there?’
Me: “Yes.”
BM: “You can buy them here.”
Me: “… it’s the same ticket.”
Chris: “Is that the boat we need to catch? <points at boat>
BM: “Yes, but you need to be here before three.”
Chris: “It is before three.”
BM: “Did you buy this yesterday?”
Chris: “Yes.”
BM: “It says it’s for the 18th.”
Chris: "It is the 18th...”
BM: “Let me see your ticket.”
Chris: “You’ve seen it three times.”
BM:  “I need your ticket. <takes ticket – looks at Chris> Get on.”

I could go on.

I mean really, I've worked in hospitality and I experienced a decline myself. It sends you into a deep form of psychosis if you don't love what you do.

I think our lowest point was on the way to Kolkata from Darjeeling. We booked beds on the train in one of the nicer classes (AC3) for the 13-hour overnight journey. We were number eight and nine on the waiting list, which isn't as bad a plan as it sounds.

Because everything in India is just that bit harder than it needs to be, Indian Railways long ago implemented a booking system which ultimately resulted in most trains in India being completely booked out months in advance. To combat this problem, the tatkal system (Hindi for ‘immediate’) was implemented, meaning a percentage of tickets were to be kept aside for sale (at an inflated price) at 10am the day before departure.

Since Indian Railways has another system that prevents the online sale of tickets between 9am and 12pm on any given day, it gets a bit tricky if you want a ticket from hereon in.

Tatkal tickets are almost always gone by 11am, so you have to go to the train station and line up at about 8am to ensure you're position in the enormous line in time for the tatkal ticket office to open at 10am. If you’re a foreigner, this means you’ll turn up to the poorly-signed station, line up where you imagine the right line might be (only to be told you should be in another line by people who want to take your place in the queue), and battle everyone who jumps in front of you and waves their money through to the teller, who will almost definitely serve them first. So this is reason number-one why it's sometimes just better to go on the waiting list.

Reason number two: since people book trains so far in advance, many end up refunding their tickets, and this is where advantages of the waiting list come in. Generally speaking, if you’re before number ten on the waiting list, you have a seat. It worked in our favour in the past.

On this particular occasion, it did not.

The train was at the station at about 11:30pm, so we looked at the list on the side of the train and realised we weren't on it. There was no other train to Kolkata that night, and going back to Darjeeling wasn't an option – we were about three-hours from town. We got on anyway and looked for empty seats. This probably would have worked on your average train where there are about three 3AC carriages. On this one, there was one, and it was full.

In the event of a situation like this, we had been advised by other travellers to approach the on-board ticket officer and ask to be allocated a seat, as there are supposedly always seats available.

Chris: “Excuse me, here are out tickets, are we still on the waiting list?”
Ticket Officer: “You do not have a seat.”
Chris: “Are there any available in other classes?”
TO: “No. You don’t have a ticket.”
Chris: “We really need to get to Kolkata, is there anything you can do?”
TO: No, train is full, what do you want me to do?”
Chris: “Do you know about the next train?”
TO: “No, no the train is full, what do you want me to do? Nothing, I can’t do anything.”

It was due to leave in three-minutes, and we had a flight to catch the next day. We raced over the bridge with giant bags to find a lengthy queue at the ticket office, and had no choice but to join it and hope there was some obstruction so the train couldn’t depart.

So we stood there for a while, exhausted and angry, before remembering the ‘ladies line’ – the un-labeled line permitting ladies to jump to the front of any queue and get served first (I'm not joking).

I ran to the front, followed suit by waving my cash around in front of the teller, grabbed two ‘general’ tickets without thinking too much about it, bolted back over the bridge with 65-litre backpacks, jumped on the train, and realised what a 'general' ticket meant.


We entered the carriage and pushed our way through hoards of people looking for somewhere to sit, until a group of people in one compartment said we could sit with them. We tried to put our bags on the luggage rack, when this guy emerged from nowhere and said ‘that’s my bed’. We put them under some chairs, and sat down.

Knowing I'd be sitting in the same position, squished against two Indian men, for 13-hours isn't something I thought I'd have to worry about in life, but there you go.

Sleep wasn’t an option, so I sat there for four-hours while Chris sat above me on a luggage rack, until some people got off and I jumped on just enough space to curl up and go to sleep, while four tobacco-chewing guys asked Chris a myriad of questions which basically boiled down to ‘what’s it like to be a foreigner?’ all the way through to 4am.

From Kolkata, we departed India and landed in in Cambodia: a country described by Lonely Planet as ‘Scambodia’.

Come at me.

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