This is the story of the most shocking travel experience I’ve ever had. Now I’ve had some crazy stuff happen: have been stamped out of Cambodia and not allowed into Vietnam and stuck in no mans land; we’ve been taken to a fake border crossing in Thailand; have been stopped for bribes and refused to pay; taxied on the scariest dirt cliff road ever; have slept on beaches in multiple countries; and have hitch-hiked in even more countries; and many many other crazy stories. But this. This is the craziest thing that has ever happened to us… and not in a good way.
* Carrie, my wife, already posted on her site (FreakinFlyers.com) her take on our India experience. And normally we try not to post the same content… But since it was one of the scariest moments of my life, I figured it’s okay.
This story comes with a lot of backstory. If you want to skip to the part about the craziness regarding our train boarding, skip to the section titled, “And So It Begins…”
I previously wrote about how the Indian railways system is one that requires booking ahead and how that’s not my style. However, there’s no way to properly describe how crazy it is.
The best way to explain it is to say that all trains are government run. No competition and there’s no reason to fix the current system since they have a profitable system.
What’s super crazy is how much money they make on cancelations.
See, tickets sell out so far in advance that long haul trips are booked speculatively months ahead. Think about it. If you may want to take the 16 hour train in a few months, if you book now you can always cancel later. But you have like zero chance of booking later.
Okay, the crazy part is that they have waitlists 100 people long. Waitlists, that they sell at full price. And then they charge 150 rupees ($2.50) per cancelation.
It makes sense, sorta. Like, it’s not worth buying speculatively for a $5 ticket. But certainly for bigger tickets if it’s for sure going to be completely sold out later. And it for sure would be.
But all this does is create a system of making it impossible to buy tickets. Impossible at the very least for last minute travel.
I was in Jaipur and had two goals. The first was to leave Jaipur to go to Agra (to see the Taj Mahal). Being tired of the big city and wanting to head north into the mountains, the second goal was to take an overnight from Agra to the very north. Two tickets. However, there were NO tickets for months, and I was hoping to find something… like a few days out.
But for whatever reason, when I checked online, there were tickets from Agra to Jammu. I mean, daily tickets. I mean tons of availability. Every week the train was practically empty, with 100 open seats instead of 100 waitlisted seats. It’s only once a week, so I decided to jump on it. Or attempt to jump on it.
The Backstory Saga Begins
Freaking tired of trying to cross the chaotic highway my hotel was on to get to the train station, I decided not to walk, but grab a tuk-tuk. But I’m freaking tired of haggling with tuk-tuk drivers. In Jaipur, like many other cities, they refuse to use their meter. Will not. Not even for locals. And yet, Jaipur was the worst city, in my experience so far in India, for people hounding you.
And the thing is, I ask locals how much they pay and I know that the meter should start at roughly 20-30 rupees and be ~15 rupees per kilometer. But I never expect this price. And never get it.
Never the less, I get to the station.
The station saga begins
I grabbed the form needed and filled it out like an ignorant westerner, like I did last time. I put our names down, figuring they can pull up the tickets. After all, the actual system couldn’t be more foreign to me.
Awkwardly I stood in the “line” for the window that reads “Foreigners, Elderly, Handicapped”. For once, it wasn’t not clear if the stares were for an actual reason. One time a guy came over to save me the embarrassment and said, “this line is for elderly.” Yet, the one time I went to the normal line, the guy at the window waited until I was the second person (although usually 50 people step in front of me when I get to be the second person), then shooed me off back to the elderly/handicapped line, as it’s also the foreigner line.
Picture me, a young healthy American standing in the short line with one 90 year old man, and a blind guy being guided by a child. Meanwhile a room full of 300 people waiting in lines two dozen people long are watching me.
Soo… Where was I?
Right. I’m in line and the lady tells me that I need to go fill out the destination on my form as well.
Except, I didn’t have a pen with me. So I could either: A) Use my elbows and body weight to get to the inquiry window to borrow a pen, or B) stand there politely for minutes like an idiot until I make my way to the window to borrow a pen. Although confident I could take everyone around me, I chose option B.
Eventually I got a pen and filled out two sheets. Then returned to the elderly/handicapped line.
I won’t draw this part out, but over and over and over she’d send me back to make edits on my form. No train number, etc.
“Can’t I just take any train to Jammu?” No, I had to go to the inquiry “line”. With a riot sheild and a baton, this would have taken an hour or two less. But at this point, I was getting very stressed. I had spent hours, and I mean hours, appeasing this lady.
Finally she told me the train didn’t exist. This is because I filled out a very minor detail incorrectly. Well then she told me to put the city in correctly, and she’d book the Jammu ticket.
Then she told me she couldn’t book the ticket from Jaipur to Agra. “Can you just put me on any train tomorrow to Agra?”
“There are no seats available tomorrow.” She said with a straight face. But I know for fact there were, she just didn’t want to search because that was the inquiry window’s job.
So I stormed out after grabbing a few empty forms. I would go back to the hotel and fill them out immaculately. Communication was hard, but I had not figured out the train website. I can’t book on it, but I can view it.
This is the real problem- that I have no way of booking online.
But this time I walked back to the hotel. And instead of stopping to meet every “friend” who wants to sell me something, like a normal walk in Jaipur, I just gave a stern no. “Where are you from?” “No!”. I was done. Like seriously done.
By the time I got to the highway I remembered why I had previously taken a tuk tuk. See the day before, after a close call following a local, who falsely I assumed would have level 10 road crossing skills, I vowed not to cross that road with Carrie again. But… Carrie wasn’t there. So I patiently waited for an opening… that was less of a close call.
A little jog and I crossed 3 filled lanes and jumped onto the median. However, traffic coming from the hotel’s direction was on the other side of a sign. I couldn’t see a thing. So a quick blind jump down, a quick horn from a bus and a quick hop back up.
Finally I got to the right side of the sign, in between the sign and a bush. Happened to be a good spot for an ant hill as well.
And traffic was way worse coming that way. It’s like the on ramp craziness or something. Bus after bus. So I waited on that ant hill median for minutes. And the entire time on the other side of the road where I was trying to go, tuk-tuks were lining up. Seriously, they were pulling over and yelling at me.
Why in the world would I be doing this if I was going to take a tuk-tuk?
Finally there was an opening big enough to cross. Small enough that I would renew my vows of not crossing again, but enough that I made it.
Then I started walking up traffic to the hotel when all of a sudden a tuk tuk was driving along side of me. Like a dog hoping for a companion he trailed behind me… UP TRAFFIC! I heard, “Sir, what does the number on your shirt mean?” Trying to make small talk, I eventually declined any future business offers.
That night in the shower I had an idea for a shirt that says:
I’m not interested in shopping, markets, textiles, art or your friend’s shop.
I already have a hotel reservation, it is prepaid and I am therefore not interested in a nicer, cheaper, better hotel.
Also, I do not need a ride right now, later, or tomorrow. Not even maybe tomorrow.
These suckers were filled out perfectly this time, now my tickets would surely be booked. After I agreed to the tourist tuk-tuk price.
At the station, the same ticket – Jaipur to Agra – that she had earlier assertively told me had no availability, was printed 30 seconds after I gave her the paper.
Then the second one which she had earlier refused to book because I needed to change the wording. She put it into her computer again and then said she couldn’t book it. Something about a premium train, needing 6 days.
The point was that it could only be booked online… which I can’t do. The solution was to just go out on the street and find a travel agent store. Now, I knew the hotel had such a person and just decided to head back.
It was now 6 pm and I had started the process at noon.
The hotel assured me their agent would book this second ticket for me for a few bucks extra.
Every couple hours I checked in with the front desk and they told me they’d call me right back. But… they never did. So I felt a bit like a tool, but literally I called back every few hours until the next afternoon. Our train to Agra wasn’t until 5pm and check-out was at 1:30 pm. So at checkout I asked to speak to a manager.
He informed me that their agent was not able to book the ticket because his computer had been down since yesterday.
It was now 1:30 pm the next day. My train to Agra was set to leave at 5pm. “I don’t want to be rude, but I can’t help but ask why this wasn’t brought to my attention… like… yesterday? When I was told it would be booked soon, and I’d get a call right back?”
The manager was super nice, and helpful, and he decided to call a personal friend to get it done.
Apparently this train was some weird premium train with higher security because it was going to the Jammu and Kashmir area. I don’t know. But it needed all kinds of extra info, and we waited at the hotel for another couple of hours. Just… sitting.
Finally the manager’s friend was able to book the Agra to Jammu ticket and we headed to Agra.
See this second train was non-refundable. Which makes sense because it was the only train that had open seats and the buyers weren’t actually speculative buyers.
Whatever, I got the open seats.
I should mention that the station for our Agra to Jammu ticket wasn’t actually in Agra but a town 30 KM outside of Agra. It was in the middle of nowhere.
We spent two days in Agra (which is plenty). The train didn’t leave until 11pm, so we had another day spent waiting in a hotel, as the Taj took a lot less time than I thought it would. But at least the ITC had a game room.
Finally, the time came and the tuk-tuk who agreed to take me to the middle-of-nowhere-train-station for $10 showed up with his “brother” who would take us. At which point he tried to raise the price for his “brother”. *blinks*
Anyways, we were off to “Tundla”. This station was in the middle of nowhere and yet there were hundreds of military men there. In many ways they were very polite, but as usual terrible starers.
We were pretty early and so we waited and waited at our platform.
And so it begins…
As if the difficulties of booking this ticket weren’t odd enough, and everyone’s reactions and comments on how it was a “special” train… it’s also apparently a stealth train. Because it was listed on none of the signs. There were calls in Hindi and English announcing upcoming train arrivals and there was an L.E.D board, and neither ever mentioned anything about our train.
So I went in and out of the train manager’s office. It wasn’t easy to communicate but I showed him the ticket. He communicated that the train would be coming [late] in 15-20 minutes and now on platform 1. Twenty-five minutes later I went back into his office and he very adamantly told me it would be coming now to platform 2.
I walked out to platform 2 and saw a train coming but it wasn’t labeled and the signs above didn’t mention our train.
Still hundreds of the military men surrounded the train platform. Hundreds.
My heart is beating thinking about it.
The incredibly long train slowly pulled up and I could see our cabin “B2″ listed and could tell it would be stopping near us. So we ran through the crowd towards its doors.
It stopped. And for one second there was silence.
Then all hell broke loose.
All the doors on this empty train were locked. All of them.
Each one of these men either had a giant stick, apparently perfect for beating the train, or hands, also perfect for beating the train. And they each seemed under obligation to yell.
Now, mind you a few things. We were in a train station in the middle of nowhere and it was now midnight. If there were hotels here… I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to look for them. Up until this point it had been very clear to me that I could not miss this train, but I was freaked out because it wasn’t listed and the time had well passed.
Furthermore it was a once a week train and otherwise there was no availability.
My friend Seth (who joined us in China two years ago and Mexico last year) was also with us and I think he was freaked out… like a long time ago.
And we were in the middle of this mob of guys. And I could see way down the platform that a door was opened somehow up further towards the front. And from where I was, it looked like a funnel that suddenly opened, but so many people were trying to cram themselves into this funnel it somehow clogged.
The three of us in the middle of the chaos just kind of stood silently.
In hind-sight it makes sense, but these guys behind us looked sincerely scared for us. One kept saying, “you have reservation?”
But what was I to do, it was locked and crowded. “I have a reservation. Surely they’ll open up the doors.”
And I honestly thought to myself, “the train won’t take off without everyone.” This assumed that we weren’t the only ones with reservations. It’s extremely clear now, that the military dudes were just picking any old train. If it wasn’t this one, they’d hop on the next one going north and make room.
No sooner had I thought “the train won’t take off without us” then the train made the sound that an active train makes. It was the last sound I heard before all hell broke loose, and I knew exactly what it meant.
Immediately I yelled to Carrie and Seth and we started running through the crowd to get to that one open cabin. Suddenly I was okay with using my elbows.
With a big bag rolling by my side, and in flipflops, I passed the only open door that was gaining speed. I ran backwards (in flipflops and holding a bag now) in front of the door and yelled for Carrie to jump on first.
In these times, things go in slow motion. I had time to think: well, I don’t want to get on before Carrie and then risk her getting left behind. But I don’t want her to get on without me. Thus the solution was for me to be in front of the door so that as she got on, I could hold on to the handle and jump on behind her.
I yelled for her to get on and she, frantic with her heavy bag, jumped on. Holding on I yelled “Seth get on!”. He yelled back “I will” and immediately I hopped on.
Have you ever done tandem skydiving? This is when you’re strapped to a certified skydiver. You basically have control of nothing. And I remember going up into the California sky and waiting on this bench facing the front of the bench located by the open door of the plain. When it was time for us to go, the skydiver didn’t say anything, he just moved both of us forward.
For an adventure junkie, it felt a little like cheating. Like I didn’t make the nerve racking decision to jump on my own.
But the feeling of being pushed forward, and sliding the direction you want without trying… that’s what it was like jumping onto this train. The mob also trying to get on moved us further into the train.
It’s never over.
For whatever reason, the soldiers hadn’t gotten to our reserved bunks yet. We climbed up and laid in our little beds. But I couldn’t sleep.
There were so many ways this could have gone badly. I just laid there thinking: What if while running backwards the platform just ended? I would have never seen it coming. What if we got separated? What if we were stuck in Tundla? What if someone got hurt getting on the train? Why didn’t I pay the little extra to get the best possible bunk, 2A? It would have had less people in a room. And why are they all staring at me?
At the next stop, the same terrifying drumming sounds from people locked out resounded through the train. Then eventually the cabin would be more and more filled with each stop with military men.
It was super clear by now, that they didn’t have tickets. They just stood wherever they could. Even right next to our beds (it’s a public cabin anyways).
“I have to sleep now”. Never had I reached the end of my travel will like that moment. But I had to clear my mind. Thinking about it wouldn’t do any good. Just sleep.
My bunk didn’t have foam coverings on the metal rails that hold it up. Now I know why the other bunks do… because the metal is sharp enough to cut open your knee.
I’ve never been so homesick. But honestly… never did I realize how much of nomads we’ve been. When I think of “home” I picture us laying in a hotel bed. For whatever reason I pictured the Renaissance Bangkok. It’s just comfy, and we’ve spent a lot of time in Bangkok.
But there was no one place I dreamed of. Just being together, in our own private space. And here we were in separate bunks, being stared at.
When I woke up, the train was practically empty, as it should have been.
It was all okay.
We got to Jammu and I walked out and the bus station was across the street. I walked across the street and heard a bus driver’s call for “Katra” where our reservation for the Country Inn & Suites is. 9,000 points a night. It’s in the middle of nature. I see lots of monkeys and I see the peak of a Himalayan mountain. I hear birds. It’s what I need.
I love so much of India, and I want to see so much more. I just don’t feel like getting on another bus or train. My transport energy is not only depleted, it’s in a deficit. Logic says, this was a crazy fluke. Emotions don’t care.
This doesn’t really change how I feel about India – although, my nerves were plucked in Jaipur. It’s still a beautiful country. But I guess what they say is true: India is harder travel, but it’s more rewarding.
Has anyone else just… been completely drained from their travel experience like this? Just zapped of will to leave the hotel (which I haven’t done in 2 days (but due to the efficiency of the last few days, I have a ton of work to catch up on))?