Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Riding the Indian Rails

The trip to Pushkar was more than just a pilgrimage to, allegedly, the world's largest camel fair; it was also my first voyage on India's rail system. A rail system, which in my head, I wanted to closely resemble the picture painted in Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited but knowing that it would not.
Waiting on the platform; Ben holding his German provisions
Thankfully, the train stopped at the Gurgaon station, so my first experience did not include going to a huge Union Station-type place in Delhi. However, even at a small station like Gurgaon, there's excitement before 7:00am. Shortly after walking onto the platform, a train arrived from the country that, apparently, included the day's milk supply. As soon as it stopped, everyone jumped off the train, grabbed the metal milk jugs hanging from the side, and raced across the tracks to get the milk where it needed to go as quickly as possible. I recognize this is an important source of nutrition for people; however, seeing the method of transport made me feel lucky I'm able to splurge on the Nestle boxed milk when the need arises for a little calcium.
Gurgaon's milk freshly delivered
With expectations improperly set, I boarded the Shatabadi Express from Gurgaon to Ajmer. The Darjeeling Limited it was not, apparently the Shatabadi Express is a special class of trains that run, on average, faster than other trains and (at least from what I could tell) only offer air conditioned cars. Overall, I must admit, there are worse ways to travel in this country. Of course, I was also traveling in the most expensive seats on the train, which for the six (or seven, depending on the direction) hour round trip cost around Rs. 2200 per person, or $50. The train car wasn't overly clean but the seats were overly roomy, much like a first class seat in a two-class airplane. Another perk of the Shatabadi is that, much like coach on a U.S. airline years and years ago, meals and drinks are provided.
The Shatabadi Express arrives at Gurgaon
The arrival station, Ajmer, a thirty minute drive from Pushkar, was slightly more lively than Gurgaon. The platform was full of people waiting for trains and the interior of the station was absolutely packed with people. While this wasn't the train station portrayed in The Darjeeling Limited, it was more in line with what I expected.
The platform at Ajmer
For the return trip to Gurgaon, we triple checked that we were on the right train in the right compartment (made easier by the fact a nice gentleman rubber cemented a passenger list on the side of the appropriate train car), and boarded the right spot. While not a Shatabadi Express, we did have our own sleeper compartment. The train itself was a bit slower but the increased privacy was well worth it. You're able to lock your door, shut your curtain, and basically close out any other activity on the train. Other than a quick visit from the conductor at the beginning of the trip and a short  heated interaction with someone that thought we were in their compartment (technically, we were; unbeknownst to them, they had traded us spots and were in the compartment next door so that we could share with our friends).
The posting of the manifest...
...lead to this "Amazing Race" moment.
While first class is a comfortable mode of transport, I'm not sure the same can be said for the other options on the train. The return train was 24 cars long and only six were equipped with air conditioning. Our car, one of the six, held seats for 10 people. However, I would estimate there were 1000 - 1500 people on the entire train. Nice to know 60 of those people used 25% of the cars. For all those aspiring management consultants out there, a great case interview question would be, "How many people ride a given train from Ajmer to Delhi?" If you happen to be asked that question, don't forget to add 2 - 3 people per train car riding on the roof. Something we didn't realize until disembarking and walking on the crosswalk above the train to leave the Gurgaon station.
The sleeper compartment
Overall, the first train trip was an entertaining and effective way to get around the country. Even when taking into account the number of derailments each year, it's a much more stress free than riding in the back seat of a car, which gives you some idea what traveling on country roads in a car is like. Making this particular trip even easier was the luxury of traveling with people that had done it before. Jodi had even purchased the tickets (which for first class needs to be done well in advance), so we have that to look forward to the next time around.

It's kind of the lazy way out, but where would civilization be without learning from others' experience?

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