Since the 1850s, India has had a close affinity with trains. Today the country boasts one of the largest rail networks in the world. So when we decided to see a few of the countless UNESCO treasures that dot the sub-continent, we naturally chose to go by train. We quickly discovered that travelling by train in India is a lot more than just getting from A to B, it is a cultural experience in itself.
The journey begins
It was a cold winter morning in Delhi, and a thin fog hung in the air. We had had very little sleep as our flight had arrived around midnight, and we had to catch the train to Agra around sunrise. When we arrived at the station, it was bustling with activity as people in multi-coloured shawls raced into carriages as trains pulled up. We were told that it would be a 3 hour ride to Agra, so we had just opted for regular seating instead of a bed.
We quickly passed through the first station, and in no time at all we were powering through Uttar Pradesh on our way to Agra. Outside, the scenery of sparse fields with the occasional tree rolled by. The people on the train generally kept to themselves and pulled the curtains closed as the sun started to shine through the well weathered windows. Then, as we approached Mathura, the train slowed down to a speed where I could have walked along beside it, and it didn’t go any faster than that until we reached Agra, which added another hour to the journey.
We were met at Agra station by our guide and taken straight to the Taj Mahal. I’ve seen quite a few of the so called wonders of the world, and I must admit that the Taj Mahal is one of my favourites. It is a beautiful marble structure wrapped up in a story of sadness, described as a “teardrop on the cheek of time”. While there were a lot of people there, it didn’t feel too congested as the site is massive, and we managed to spend the better part of an hour taking in the beauty of the Taj Mahal.
After a stop at the obligatory tourist trap, lunch, and a visit to the Agra Fort, we went back to the Agra train station to wait for our next ride. When my mother visited India back in the early 90s, I remember her showing me the photos and saying that they didn’t capture the grime and the smell in some of the places. Now I can say the same about Agra train station. Garbage was strewn all over the place, people slept on the platform next to partially rotten piles of vegetables. The stench of human waste filled the air as people had obviously ignored the signs inside the train to not use the toilets when the train is stopped at the station – because they open onto the tracks. It was also like a mini zoo, with monkeys, crows, dogs, and rats everywhere you looked. We were happy when our train to Jaipur pulled up so that we could escape the platform. As the train crossed the border into Rajasthan, the sun was setting over the more desolate landscape, a mouse ran around our feet in the communal sleeper carriage (the highest class available), and we settled in for the 4 hour journey.
Welcome to Rajasthan
A slight chill greeted us in the morning as we looked out over the buzzing Pink City of Jaipur. After breakfast we headed straight for the Palace of the Winds (Hawa Mahal). This lovely piece of architecture was built over 200 years ago so that royal ladies could observe everyday life along the unassuming road below, without being seen. I can imagine that it would have been an interesting way to pass the time as today the streets are lined with rundown shopfronts, with women balancing large, the occasional caravan of camels, snake charmers, or maybe a street magic show.
There’s a great deal to see in the Pink City, and after the Palace of the Winds we headed out to the Amber Fort. The sprawling complex is a 20 minute drive north of Jaipur city centre. As you approach, you see walls and fortifications lining the ridges. Many people choose to ride elephants up into the main fort, but please don’t support this inhumane practice. You can drive all the way up to the back entrance to the fort with ease, and no elephants are harmed in the process. The palace inside the fort is a masterpiece of paintings and carvings, and had some neat technological innovations to provide heating with mirrors in winter and ‘air conditioning’ by channeling water through the palace in summer. On the topic of palaces, you can also see the 18th century Jal Mahal Palace in the middle of Man Sagar Lake, as well as the City Palace with its extravagant four seasons “gates”.
Onward to the Blue City
It was time to get back on the train and continue into the west. We arrived at the Jaipur train station around 4pm, and it was much more pleasant than what we had seen in Agra. We had opted for the highest class of sleeper carriage again, which was a shared space full of bunk-beds, with a curtain being the extent of the privacy you were permitted. That said, our co-passengers greeted us with smiles and were generally well mannered. With a 5 hour journey ahead of us after a long day of touring around Jaipur, we quickly fell asleep as the black night engulfed that landscape. About an hour before we arrived in Jodhpur, Ryan was woken up by a mouse crawling on his arm. Suffice to say, we stayed awake for the remainder of the trip.
Although Jodhpur is located in one of the more arid regions of Rajasthan, the city has a lot more greenery than we had seen in Jaipur. Jodhpur is also known as the Blue City as citizens painted the tops of their houses blue to reflect the heat and keep them cool inside. If you haven’t heard of Jodhpur before, you might recognize it from one of the scenes in the Batman film – ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. Perched above the sprawling city is the Mehrangarh Fort, which doesn’t look as impressive as Jaipur’s Amber Fort from the outside. However, the interior of the fort is elaborately decorated with intricately carved sandstone balconies and walkways. Everywhere you look, there’s another reason to snap a photo.
After a delicious lunch, which later resulted in a bad case of Delhi Belly, we went out to explore the market place. It was a hectic hive of activity, with people carrying giant baskets of chilies, and others lining the streets to sell breads and sweets as auto rickshaws sped past and dodged cows blocking the roads. We were surprised to come across an underground warehouse that sold a variety of different fabrics. While they claimed to have overruns of orders for Hermes and Armani, we were interested in their detailed gypsy blankets, and picked up one embroidered with little mirrors for a very good price.
It was time to go back to Delhi and catch our plane to Kathmandu, so we boarded our train for the 11 hour journey. Luckily, the Mandor Express actually had a first class carriage, but that still meant 4 berths per cabin. Our travelling companions were an American woman, who had a summer job of evaluating 5 star hotels, and an Indian man, who wrote for a national paper. As we chatted, a mouse ran in and scampered around, so we lifted our bags onto our bunks and settled in for the long ride out of Rajasthan.
While there are luxury trains that traverse the subcontinent, they take you to the same destinations and stop at the same filthy platforms. Travelling on the local trains allowed us to meet some of the locals and learn more about the country. It also led us to conclude that every train in India contains at least one resident rodent.
Have you ever been on a long train journey in a foreign land? Share the best and the worst with us in the comments.