Wander Woman Marie Javins discovers there's a trick to conquering India's chaotic train system
The dusty border town of Sonauli has a bad reputation, like so many border towns. But even with its dust, touts, and opportunists, the frontier between Nepal and India didn't strike me as out of the ordinary, and seemed less corrupt than many. At least no one in an official capacity encouraged me to hand over a tip.
I walked across the border from Nepal, wandered down the filthy street – stepping around mud – to Immigration, which was located in what looked to me like a tiny shack. I was pestered by a rickshaw driver as I filled out a paper and got my expensive India visa stamped, then walked about 20 feet before a share-taxi driver asked me if I was looking for a lift to Gorakhpur.
I was. And he only needed three more passengers to fill his 4WD so we didn't have to wait long. Including the driver, there were four of us in the front seat. Goodness – they do stuff you in, I thought. The man next to me rolled his eyes when he saw the fourth passenger pile into the front, somehow fitting into the nonexistent space between him and the driver's seat, but unless one of us was prepared to buy the other seat, there was nothing to be done about the tight fit.
The driver wedged himself in and started up, driving us down the potholed, cracked road, out of town and into the countryside of Northern India, honking at dogs, people, chickens, and motorbikes as he went.
We stopped for a late-afternoon snack halfway through, all piling out of the tight squeeze of the 4WD and stretching our limbs. Could we still feel our toes? Yes, for now.
I didn't eat. I was worried about eating something that didn’t agree with me when we still had hours of driving ahead of us.
After three hours of mostly slow driving along the cracked roads, we reached the sprawling, chaotic city of Gorakhpur. This was just a way-station – I wasn't hanging around. But my train didn't leave until late – 10:30pm. I had five hours to waste.
The share-taxi finished its run – conveniently – outside the old, British-style, whitewashed railway station. I headed inside the dark interior, searching for luggage storage.
This was located at the far end of the station, and it turned out to be complicated. For reasons I didn't understand – I may have arrived at shift-change time – I had to wait for 20 minutes for the man who recorded my details.
"Do you have any food in your luggage?"
"No." I silently added: "Aside from the food in Zip-Loc bags in my luggage," but I could see why they asked. Mice were roaming all over the storage room.
"Does your luggage lock?"
The rucksack did.The woven plastic bag I was dragging souvenirs around in until I got to the Varanasi post office did not.
"You must take the bag that doesn't lock. We won't accept it."
I left my backpack, braved the slightly terrifying women's room, then poured antibacterial gel all over my entire body and scrubbed for an hour, then headed out to find something to eat.
There were some promising open-air restaurants across the street. One thali looked as good as another. I walked along, trying to guess which food stand was cleanest, then I ran across an extraordinary room of headless sculptures. I peered in the open window for a moment.
"What is that?" I asked a shopkeeper next door.
"Gods," he said, shrugging.
I saw now that he was right, the multi-armed figures were gods. This must be a place that makes god sculptures for temples and events. But the gods had no heads! Perhaps the heads were made separately, or by a head expert. Maybe heads were harder to create than bodies. I had no idea.
I sat down and had my thali, and drank the imitation Coke. The fake Coke in India is, funnily enough, owned by Coca-Cola, who bought their successful competitor some years back.
I wandered back to the train station and located an air-conditioned lounge intended for first-class passengers. Nice! Now I was a happy train-rider. I went in, found a seat near not too many mice, and noticed the lounge had its own toilets, which were significantly cleaner than the public ones.
I settled in with my Kindle and a package of cookies from a vendor.
Finally, at ten, I went and fetched my luggage. The train pulled in as I returned.
Hundreds of people without assigned seats descended on the train, pushing, shoving, desperate to get on first.
But the old days of people hanging off the sides of the train appeared to be over. Once everyone settled in, no one hung off the train and everyone looked crowded but seated.
I held out my printed (confirmed) ticket – which I'd gotten from Cleartrip.com – and started asking people.
They pointed me onto the first-class sleepers. I was in AC2, which isn't AC1, but is sort of a slightly lower first-class, without doors on the shared compartments.
I had a lower bunk in an open compartment with four beds. The other travellers were polite but kept to themselves. The attendant gave me a pillow and two sheets, then I didn't see him again. If the other passengers hadn't been disembarking when we reached Varanasi, I might have missed my stop in the wee hours of the morning.
"Varanasi?" I asked when the train slowed.
I tugged my pack out from under my bunk and climbed off the train to the platform of Varanasi's main train station.
An auto-rickshaw driver tapped me.
He led me through the dark station in the early morning, clinging to a thin path through the hundreds of people asleep on the platform. Pilgrims, I wondered, waiting for their morning trains home? Oops, don't step on her.
Outside, we got into the auto-rickshaw – this is a tuk-tuk in Thailand – and started up.
Yes, I'd chucked out my budget-traveller cred and booked the Radisson with points for two nights in Varanasi. I was looking forward to the free wifi, the free breakfast buffet, and mostly, the outrageously comfortable room. And I was getting the most of it, arriving at the crack of dawn on check-in day and leaving at night the day I was checking out.
The sun hadn't risen yet when I approached the front desk.
"Hi, I'm kind of... early." My phone clock showed that I was trying to check in at five in the morning.
The staff apologised that the hotel had a full house and didn't have a room ready yet, but several people were leaving for the airport and a room would be ready in a few hours.
"No problem. I'll just go have breakfast."
Yum. And then I hung out in the bar, sipping coffee, until my room was ready.
I carried my damp rucksack up to my room in the early morning sunlight.
I unzipped it and stepped back from the smell.
P.U. All of my possessions had been soaked on the roof of the Nepalese bus yesterday afternoon during a thunderstorm, and had been sitting in enclosed dampness since then.
And smelled like it.