To truly experience India you need to experience Indian railways! This is a well known popularly held belief around the world. Armed with this thought my last day in India was not going to be one of sadness at leaving, but one filled with excitement at having a six hour rail journey ahead of me across the vast desert expanse between Ajmer and Delhi aboard the famed Shatabi Express.
But, way before we could even think of boarding this Indian express train we would have to get to Ajmer. Ajmer is an important railway junction situated in the heart of the state of Rajasthan and our point of departure.
The journey got underway down the ever-present elephant track. Down and down the steep twisting slopes of Kuchaman Fort we went in the only other ever-present element of our stay while at Kuchaman – that’s right, that battered old army jeep!
At the base of the hill we would transfer to a minibus which would then drive the barren 103 km to Ajmer town. Upon arrival in the outskirts of Ajmer we would wait at a roadside restaurant then picked up by a fleet of taxi’s we would be driven crazily along the small narrow winding roads of the town to the dilapidated railway station.
Life is a journey, not a destination – proclaimed the philosopher, essayist, and poet (Ralph Waldo Emerson) – it’s in the travel and not the arrival etc, etc, well this journey of some eighteen plus hours to get back to London was surely going to prove whether this notion (and very famous quote) was well founded or just a load of old fashioned bunkem!
Ajmer station is everything and more that you imagine an Indian railway station to be, namely chaotic, packed, smelly, and dilapidated. All of life looked crammed into this provincial station, the beggars, the slumdogs, the hawkers, the homeless, and the occasional railway traveller. Luckily we already had our tickets because God only knows which ticket booth we would otherwise have had to use. There were predictably no signs in English this far out in deepest India. Station porters flocked around us, eager to carry a westerners copious amounts of luggage for hopefully equally copious amounts of payment. Bags were hoisted high to be carried on heads others were strapped to carts and bound together for the long journey ahead, the platform bustled with life and commerce, with trade and industry, but also with destitution and poverty in unfortunately equal amounts.
The term “Shatabdi” means centenary in the Hindi language and this was the train that we were awaiting. The locomotive was much vaunted at being able to travel at over 130KM an hour when fully opened up and offers a level of luxury not usually associated with Indian transport. That having been said though did not mean a lot in real world terms. The train when it did pull into the long platform was suitably ramshackle to warrant the image I had already instilled in my head of a typical Indian locomotive and carriages i.e. pretty bloody awful.
The usual kerfuffle ensued as reserved seats were argued over and after much seat changing (which became very reminiscent of a party game) all were eventually settled and the train departed. The toilets turned out to be (as expected) a desired taste, and a trip to them was put off for as long as was humanly possible. They consisted of a through hole to the tracks below and a small cup of water tethered to the standpipe behind to swill the hole round after use, which at 130KM an hour is a skill to be mastered.
The train crossed miles upon miles of barren parched land as the sun set slowly on the far horizon. Villages and towns whizzed past in a blur on our constant and relentless march towards Delhi. The onset of monotony became broken only by meal time.
Unfortunately this too turned out to be very much an acquired taste and those in the know had phoned ahead to stations we were due to pass through to get some take away and possibly home-made food delivered to the carriage from the platform concourse. I had heard of this practice in India before but was amazed to see it in action and must admit that it seemed by far the most efficient service I’d seen during my whole tour of the sub-continent.
Hour after hour and town after town passed by beyond the scratched carriage windows, but eventually the suburbs of Delhi could be made out. I opened one of the large entrance doors on the side of the carriage which shut itself with nothing more than a loose flip latch and I stood breathing in the smells and listening to the sounds that wafted and drifted into the carriage from the world outside as we ran through the trackside slums of outer Delhi. By candlelight these shanty towns consisting of nothing more than pallets and plastic bags look almost like normal dwellings when passed by at speed, but of course when seen close-up and personal the true plight of their occupants is cruelly revealed.
Slowly we pulled into Delhi Central station. Doors crashed and baggage handled noisily, but nonetheless efficiently. Porters flocked around us like bees around a honey pot, all anxious for a good nights pay. With bags on heads and trolleys loaded we made the small but ever so depressing trip from the station to the bus station outside and beyond. Depressing because we had to weave among the homeless children and babies lying spread eagled across the platform floors, all sheltering under the one roof, albeit a station roof for the night, probably thankful of any form of shelter. The smell of urine was ever-present. Outside the scene was no better, many homeless slept on their carts all jumbled together on the sides of the streets with nowhere else to go and nothing left to sell.
Finally we reached the luxury of the waiting coach and at once sped across Delhi to the airport far away on the other side of this sprawling and chaotic third world city. We left the confines of the coach and walked into the surreal world of an international airport. The sliding doors shut behind us and the world of India outside was left far behind. Inside you could buy a Coke that was really a Coke and even a Subway sandwich if you really desired one and there it was in an instance, from third world to first world in the blink of an eye.
It was all hard to take in after such a long, tiring and varied journey. India though was very firmly etched in my thoughts as we eventually took off above the dim twinkling lights of Delhi and what soon seemed like a million miles away as we headed back west at 30,000 feet to all the luxury and excess that we take for granted in the developed world.
Questions swirled around in my head. Unanswerable questions. Questions that many visitors over the centuries who have visited this enigmatic and amazing country must have asked themselves. Questions that have no answers which is why people return again and again to India, because maybe, just maybe, the next time a little more might be revealed of this great land and its people’s to the adventurous traveller, and maybe, just maybe that travellers understanding of life may become clearer.
I know one day somehow I will return because like so many before me I have so many questions to ask and so many answers to find, and after all isn’t that why those of us filled with wanderlust travel in the first place, to answer those questions? Farewell India, you were truly amazing!