I would be so racist against Indian people by now if I hadn’t taken so many trains. In a place like India, my white skin makes me a huge target because of my perceived level of wealth. As such, most of the interactions I have with locals are about money, and the unfortunate majority of them are not positive. Traveling through this kind of environment, it's easy to get cynical. My saving grace throughout my whole time in India was my time on the trains.
The trains are where I got to interact with some actual people; people that had no end game with me. When taking trains in India, I was nearly always crowded in with lots of people in a small space, but most of those people always spoke English, especially in the more expensive train classes. With only a negligible language barrier, I got on those trains a foreigner, but I got off a friend. There were occasional awkward conversations, but I have met some awesome people on Indian trains. Some of them have really looked out for me along the way too. These train rides have done a lot to reaffirm my faith in people, and taught me a lot of really positive things about Indian people and their culture.
Anyway, taking trains is a quintessential part of the Indian experience, but can (understandably) be a cause of some anxiety. The goal of this post is to let you know what to expect. This post is meant to be informational, so it's very long and very detailed. Pictures will be at the end.
There are a quite a few different classes you can take, but I (mostly) stuck to the AC (air conditioned) classes. They are as follows:
1AC means there is air conditioning and 1 bed per sleeping area – this is the nicest class available.
2AC means there is air conditioning and 2 beds stacked on top of one another in an area
3AC means there is air conditioning and 3 bed stacked on top of one another in an area
I booked the ticket from an outside travel agent located at 4 Sudder Street (in Calcutta). I was sketched out in the beginning, but they came through for me. They only took a 50 INR (0.76 USD) commission on the ticket. Minus that fee, I paid 1,500 INR (22.68 USD) for a “3AC” ticket.
When you book with outside agents you are not assigned an actual seat on the train until a few hours before hand. Now, after some experimenting with booking tickets, I prefer to book at the train station directly so that I am guaranteed a seat. Bearing that uncertainty in mind, I paid half the money up front, and the other half once I had my ticket in my hand with a confirmed seat.
I left for the Calcutta train station from Sudder Street 2 hours early because I thought that it was going to be a long drive, but it wasn’t. It was quite short actually, so I had a lot of down time. The train was on-time, and it was full. I slept on the top bunk, which was a bit cramped, but okay. It being my first time on one of these trains, I was worried about leaving my bag alone under the bottom bunk for safety reasons. Truth be told though, there was nothing to worry about. Nobody wanted to steal anything from me. Even if they did, this train went non-stop overnight so nobody could get on or off until I woke back up. Aside from that, the people on the train with me were very friendly and talkative, so I felt like they were trustworthy. The air conditioning wasn’t super strong, but the temperature was pleasant. There was 1 outlet for the 8 of us in our bed area, but nobody needed to use it. I took 2 sleeping pills and passed out.
When I woke up, my new friends explained to me how to get a tuk-tuk, and what price I should pay. One of them even helped me negotiate it once we got to the station. We arrived almost exactly on time. It was 13 hours in total.
For lack of any good travel agents near to my hostel, I got a shared tuk-tuk for 20 INR (0.30 USD) to Varanasi Station, and bought the ticket directly. There is an office there specifically to sell tickets, with no line, and a helpful, English speaking worker. I decided to ball out, and pay 1,650 INR (24.96 USD) to go in the 2 AC car of the Shiv Ganga Express. Then I got the same price for a tuk-tuk back to the hostel. Learning how to catch those shared tuk-tuks was sort of a 'sink or swim' moment for me in India. And guess what? I swam.
Varanasi actually has 3 train stations and my train left from Manduadih Station, which was a bit far. I got a tuk-tuk there for 120 INR (1.81 USD), but the traffic was so bad that in the end I got out and walked. It wasn’t hard to find, since I was close by at that point.
I was waiting for the train with 2 French people. We waited patiently as trains came and went, bound for other cities. Our train was supposed to leave at 7:30pm, and the departure board claimed that our train was going to be on time. However, when 7:30pm came, our train didn’t. At that point we asked around and we were told that the train to New Delhi had been delayed until 9:30pm. So we waited.
It was 10:00pm when the train arrived, so we hopped on. Once I was on-board, I was quickly informed that this was not my train. The Shiv Ganga express had, in fact, already came and went. I seriously don’t know how though. We were there the whole time – no train came! Whatever. Moving forward, I wasn’t sure what to do. I was running back and forth talking to workers on the platform, and the train. Eventually an Indian man on the train with me pulled me aside and told me to pay off the conductor. “Only money works,” he said.
I found the conductor, paid him 1,500 INR (22.70 USD) for a new ticket to the 3 AC car (which I’m pretty sure was actually just a bribe), and then found my new seat. The man who had told me to bribe the conductor found me there and I thanked him for the advice. “Money is the biggest God in India,” he said. Woah dude, that was deep.
That train was much colder, and had much fewer people. Again, there was 1 outlet. This time I slept on the bottom, which I liked a lot better than the top. I woke up when the train stopped at a station early in the morning. Another man who had befriended me the previous night told me that we had been delayed 4 more hours during the night before he got off. I didn’t arrive in New Delhi until about 3pm, but it was a nice ride because I was the only person in my area. The outlet was all mine so I got out my computer and watched a few movies as rural India flew by out the window. It took 15 hours in total, plus another 2.5 hours of waiting at the station.
Agra is, of course, the location of the Taj Mahal. I had intended to take the bus to the Taj Mahal, but the morning that we had intended to depart, we found out that the bus takes 6 hours, not the 3 hours that we had originally been told. This threw a wrench into our plans because, by that point in the day, it was getting to be too late. So we hustled over to the train station and were able to book a ticket to Agra on 45 minutes notice.
The ride from New Delhi to Agra is short – only about 3 hours. Our train was a bit behind schedule, so it was more like 3 and a half hours by the time we actually arrived. The cost was 535 INR (8.09 USD). I bought lunch on the train for 150 INR (2.27 USD). It was mediocre but filling, and didn’t give me any stomach problems. It was a smooth ride, and we pretty much had all of our “area” to ourselves. I settled in with my headphones as the slums of New Delhi flew by the window.
We took the train back from Agra / the Taj Mahal the same day. We hadn’t booked a ticket yet when we arrived in Agra. We weren’t sure how long we would need to see everything that was there, so as soon as we arrived we headed over to the ticketing office. We asked what times there were trains leaving for Delhi and then picked from the list that was given to us. We ended up with about 5 hours in Agra, which was plenty.
We were feeling adventurous and thrifty, so we booked 2S for 100 INR (1.51 USD). This is one of the lowest classes that you can ride. It has no air conditioning, and no beds. It’s just a bunch of benches next to open windows. The way that we booked it left us with no pre-assigned seats. We would have to come back later to find out exactly what our seats were.
We showed up to the train station 45 minutes early, and the woman at the ticket counter wrote down our seats for us. The train was more of less on time, but when we got on it there were people in our seats. They had apparently been assigned the same seats. Or maybe not. They weren’t moving though. So we pushed through the crowded train cars until we found 2 seats next to each other. When the conductor came, he began yelling at us in Hindi because we were so clearly in the wrong place. As he was yelling at us though I looked around and everybody on the train was gesturing for us not to worry. The conductor walked off and we were unanimously reassured that we were okay to sit in these seats we had found.
The ride wasn’t exactly comfortable. It was crowded, and loud. Beggars and people selling food like a baseball games walked down the aisles regularly, so I just put my headphones in a zoned out. Before heading back northwest to New Delhi, the train took off going southeast. I was concerned for a moment, but eventually the tracks turned, and we got going the right direction. We arrived in New Delhi about 30 minutes late. Here's a couple snap shots from that ride - It was pretty crowded...
I bought a ticket from New Delhi to Amjer for 540 INR (8.17 USD). It was going to be a 7 hour ride during the middle of the day, so I got 3AC. Amjer was a bit less mainstream as destinations go, so I had to take a 150 INR (2.27 USD) tuk-tuk ride to the outskirts of New Delhi to Delhi Sarai Rohilla station. This is where my train was going to depart from. I swatted flies, and turned away beggar children while I waited. We departed one time and would arrive on time. On the train I bought a veggie fried rice for 70 INR (1.06 USD) and ate it for lunch.
Amjer is the nearest train station to a little town called Pushkar, which is relatively popular within the province of Rajasthan as a place to travel to. However, Amjer itself isn’t a large train station, so the train wasn’t going to stop for more than a minute or 2. This kind of window scared me a bit, but I talked to the people on the train with me, and they helped me out and let me know when it was time for me to get off. They also gave me their best guesses for what the right price would be for the long taxi ride over to Puhskar. Their guesses were all over the place, but eventually I tracked down the right price: 300 INR (4.54 USD).
As soon as I arrived in Amjer I went straight to the ticket counter and bought my next ticket. I paid 490 INR (7.41 USD) for a 3AC train car to Jodhpur. It was going to be a 6 hour ride from midday to the evening. I got a taxi back to Amjer from Pushkar for 300 INR (4.54 USD), leaving 40 minutes ahead of my train's departure time. When I got to the station my train was waiting for me. We only departed a few minutes late.
My area was crowded with Indian men carrying military backpacks. They were a bit older though, and didn’t look like soldiers themselves. They were pretty rude. They stepped on my toes unapologetically as they wedged their bags under my seat. I was annoyed, but eventually they settled in, and it was a pleasant quiet ride into Jodphur. I was hungry, but there was never any food that was sold on this train. That had been a common theme on most of the other trains I had taken, but not on this one.
I plugged my computer in to do some writing, and quickly learned that in this particular seat, using the outlet meant that touching any metal surface nearby would result in an electrical shock. I got shocked a few times during that trip.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make this trip over night or not. The train takes a total of 6 hours, which is an awkward time-frame for sleeping. Perhaps it would have been better to make this trip during the day. In the end, for the sake of saving time and money, I chose to take the train overnight. For a 3AC bed, it cost me 400 INR (6.04 USD). It didn’t depart until 11:45pm, so I had some time to kill that night. I did my best to kill time, but I still arrived an hour ahead of time. I bought a bag of chips and sat there while people loaded on and off of trains. There was a man sitting next to me that spoke some English. He said that he was also trying to go to Jaisalmer, but he hadn’t any money. He opened his wallet to reveal one, solitary note for 20 INR (0.32 USD). I felt like maybe I should help him out… but I didn’t.
I had been waiting for 40 minutes before I realized that the train I was trying to catch had been sitting in the station the whole time! I go to my car, pushed through the crowded corridors, to find my bed occupied. A man was sleeping under a sheet like a dead body. I tapped him on the foot. He poked his head out, and I showed him my ticket. He exchanged a few chuckles with his friends in the other 5 beds around us, and then relinquished his seat.
I laid down, and settled in for what was going to be the worst train ride I’ve had in India. Nothing crazy happened, but the people around me, who were all older military men, were just very rude. There was a plethora of large, oddly packaged objects shoved underneath the seats at every available space. Every 5 minutes or so somebody would get up and attempt to readjust one of them. Being on the bottom bed, this often constituted an invasion of my space. Once a man bent over so abruptly, and so violently, that his ass hit me in the face.
Eventually I managed to drift to sleep that night, in spite of some heinous snoring coming from the bunk across from me, but it was a terrible night’s sleep. These rude military men got off the train around 4 in the morning, and they made quite a racket. When I finally trudged off this train in Jaisalmer, I was like a zombie.
Having traveled exclusively via train until this point, I was apprehensive about taking a bus. The problem with the train was that they only go to Jodhpur twice per day, leaving at 6am and midnight, respectively. It was a rough ride to do overnight, or at least it was when I did it, and I would have appreciated being able to get on the road sooner rather than later, so I pulled the trigger on a bus ticket instead. I was to depart at 2pm.
My hotel in Jaisalmer booked the bus ticket for me and took no commission. It cost me 300 INR (4.53 USD). When it came time for us to depart, some of the hotel workers drove me to the bus stop in a jeep. Unfortunately the bus ticket was pretty vague about where exactly I was going to be picked up. Instead of an exact location, it just listed the name of a large intersection. The fact that both of the Indian men in the jeep with me were illiterate didn't help things, because I can't read Hindi either. With the bus scheduled to depart in 10 min, we were desperately asking people on the street to help us find the place.
Eventually we found it. There was a large, run-down tour bus sitting in a dusty dirt lot, just a short ways outside the city. Next to this bus was an abandoned construction project. A few men sat in the shade of this partially finished building reading newspapers. I asked them if I was in the right place, and despite the fact that they spoke no English, I was able to confirm that this was indeed my bus.
Eventually the driver got up and climbed on board. I followed him onto the bus, but nobody else did. I was alone on there. The doors shut, and, I started to second guess what the hell I was doing on this bus as we pulled out of the dirt lot. We stopped through a few markets on the dusty outskirts of Jaisalmer, and at each one a few more people jumped on board. The bus was still mostly empty though.
As we continued out into the dusty wasteland that is Rajasthan, the bus would stop periodically, and people would jump on and off. People that only wanted to ride the bus to the next settlement would just pay a little bit, and people that had purchased tickets all the way to Jodhpur would present their tickets to the driver. It seemed that this bus was somewhere in between a charter bus and public transit. Although there was no air conditioning, I found the temperature to be quite pleasant because the windows were always kept open.
At one point our bus came to a screeching halt on the side of the road. From my seat I couldn't see out the windows, so after 20 minutes or so I asked the man next to me why we had stopped. He pointed to some people sitting under a tarp to protect themselves from the sun on the side of the road. He told me that we had stopped to give them water. They were older, and they were very thirsty.
PAUSE. Wow. What would happen if the Greyhound bus pulled over to help a homeless man in the U.S.? It would never happen of course, but what if it did? I think it's a safe bet that the passengers of said bus would NOT be happy. This was such a compassionate move, and one that came as common sense to all of my fellow passengers. "Of course we stopped to help them! Why wouldn't we?" I felt convicted for thinking that this was weird.
A ways later, a decrepit old woman dressed in colorful robes got on board the bus. I was sitting in my seat, zoning out, when I accidentally made eye contact with her. She smiled and held out a hand in the universal gesture for "please give me money." Annoyed, I shook my head no and looked away. The woman got up, and walked over to my seat. "Is this lady serious right now?" I thought to myself, angrily. I popped out my head phones when she got to my seat, and firmly said "NO." The woman's smile never faded though. She simply pointed down towards my lap. I looked down at the cold bottle of Sprite I had in my hand, and immediately realized that this woman was not asking for money; she was thirsty!
In that moment I felt terrible. Of course I could give her something to drink! What am I? The woman produced a small plastic cup, and I poured her a cold, fizzy glass. She gave a nod of thanks, and returned to her seat.
About 20 minutes passed, and I had had my fill of Sprite even though there was still a good amount left at the bottom of my bottle. The woman had long since finished the glass that I had poured for her, so I got up and gave her the rest of my bottle. She gave a big smile, and gratefully accepted the bottle. I returned to my seat, a few second later another Indian man got up and followed suit, giving her what remained of his drink. Headphones in, I just looked out the window and smiled. People are good.
Total Money Spent:
[TRAIN] Calcutta/Varanasi = 1,500 INR (22.68 USD)
[TRAIN] Varanasi/New Delhi = 1,650 INR (24.96 USD)
[TRAIN] New Delhi/Agra = 535 INR (8.09 USD)
[TRAIN] Agra/New Delhi = 100 INR (1.51 USD)
[TRAIN] New Delhi/Ajmer = 540 INR (8.17 USD)
[CAR] Ajmer/Pushkar = 300 INR (4.54 USD)
[CAR] Pushkar/Ajmer = 300 INR (4.54 USD)
[TRAIN] Ajmer/Jodhpur = 490 INR (7.41 USD)
[TRAIN] Jodhpur/Jaisalmer = 400 INR (6.04 USD)
[BUS] Jaisalmer/Jodhpur = 300 INR (4.53 USD)
GRAND TOTAL: 6,605 INR (92.47 USD)
Note: You might have noticed that as time goes on, the exchange rate fluctuates. It's not a mistake—it's something you have to take into account when you travel. It might seem obvious, but this is something that I've barely touched on in my last 100+ articles, so I thought I'd make a note of it here.
Here's a few pictures I took from here and there during my train travel:
And that's it for India folks! For now at least. If you missed the past few months of articles and want to read more about all the places I went in India, go to "Central Asia" and click "India" - I promise what you read will be entertaining and informative. But for now, it's time for me to bid the Indian subcontinent farewell.