Indian Train Journeys – An experience like none other

Sleeper Class

In the past few years I have traveled a lot by trains in different countries, while nothing beats the punctuality of the Swiss Railways (SBB), or the speed of Deutsche Bahn & TrainItalia, none of these travel systems have the true experience like the Indian Railways.

During my college days I’d used to travel regularly on the Sleeper class from Noida/Pune to Lucknow. Like everyone else, I have been a witness to the unapologetic delays,the festival rush when having a reservation meant little when fellow travelers had to get home to be with their families on Diwali.While I upgraded to the AC IIIrd, it just wouldn’t give me the same experience as the Sleeper Class travels or General class travels between Lucknow & Kanpur.

I have been always amazed at the uncanny ability, of passengers, to analyse delays in the local MEMU type trains stopping in between stations in the middle of nowhere. A typical conversation in this situation would go like this:

‘Bhaisaab, ye train kyun ruk gayi? (Brother, why did the train stop?)’

With an air of authority of such matters the reply would be, ‘Passenger hai, Shatabdi cross ho rahi hai, dekhna abhi crossing ke baad chal padegi (ours is a passenger train, giving way to a more important train, you’ll see it pass)’

And if by chance, the above mentioned logic fails, the second response would be, ‘Lucknow station pe platform khali nahi hoga, aajkal bahut train late hai isliye rukna hai. (No free platforms in the destination, we’d get in once it frees up)’

These conversations happen everyday between strangers, nobody knows how true they might be or who created them to begin with, but there would always be someone to ask and answer.

Then, there would be instances when you’d have reserved a lower level seat and there would always be a gentleman requesting you to shift to the upper levels because ‘ladies hai (women passengers with them)’. If you were a guy like me, most of the times you’d grudgingly oblige, even when the upper berth was your last preference.

But the most fun was to be had to be a part of wedding parties, when at each station some new members of your extended family would join you with fresh supplies of snacks, cold water and family gossip. The singing & gossip sessions would last late into the night, but who’d care about other passengers. Of course, there would always be that elder uncle or cousin who’d be snoring like a siren, feeling completely at home in the wobbling train.

Talking of these train journeys, how can one forget to mention the support economy of chaiwallahs and naashta (breakfast) sellers who’d chirp in at each station offering you wafer thin omelettes, & cutlets from unverified sources. Many train stations have their own special offerings which lure the foodies to step out at the stops and attempt to pick the sweetmeat or savory offered. The chaiwallahs (tea sellers) deserve a special mention with their trademark calls for tea, which is always promised to be enriched with cardamon and tulsi (basil) with a money back guarantee on quality! Lets not forget, he’d be off the train much before you’d be done with your tea, but the promise meant something to everyone.

Finally, there would be the ticket collector in his black coat moving with the air as if he were the king of the train, followed by hapless passengers on the wait list requesting the lord’s mercy be bestowed upon them with a berth to sleep for the night.

But while all this excited me, everyone would often knowingly ignore young lecherous men leering lustily at young women making them uncomfortable, exposing the undercurrents of gender issues in India, or parents beating the hell out of their kids in public as a punishment for their hyperactivity.

Bello Milano

I have been traveling quite a bit, this started in the last few months…Vienna, Amsterdam (not exactly!),  Milan, Konstanz and of course places within der Schweiz. I have already completed that wish to visit 5 countries by the time I am 30, in fact, i have already exceeded it by one.

Do I regret traveling? No, I love it.

So it was a fine sunny day in September, not like the suddenly gloomy, dull days of the fall, devoid of any Sun. Early around 8.30 we left from Zurich HB towards Milano Centrale. Yes, Yes I know I should have taken an earlier train, but a weekend is all about lazy beginnings right?

Anyways, it was already around noon when we landed up in Milano Centrale. The first taste of Italian hospitality came in when the Tourist counter lady at the station acted super rude and just gave me a tourist map to the city, she did not respond to my query about this thing called Milan Card (a coupon which gives you free local travel and discounts in shops). It took us another 10 minutes to find our way out of the station, deciphering the map…The station itself is huge, with connections to the Milan Underground system. The station was opening in 1931 and was, at one time, an attempt to showcase the impact of the power of Mussolini’s regime.

Next step was to look into the map and select the places we’d visit, afterall we had to return the same day. We were hungry, and ended up at the McDonalds across. First tragedy stuck, the lady at the counter said yes to vegatarian burger, and what i ended up with was a salad burger without any patty. It was yuck! Anyways, we marked around 10 places on the map, and figured out the  Azienda Trasporti Milanesi route.

Next halt was the massive Piazza del Duomo, a huge expanse of a square with buildings all around it. I have never been to a place like that, a huge square with hundreds of people. It was indeed a crowded place, a novelty in Europe I suppose? The square is faced by the famous Milan Cathedral on one side, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and a series of other important buildings and shopping arcades.

The square had like a zillion pigeons with sellers trying to lure outsiders like me to feed corn to them at a price or get a picture taken at a price. Sounds familiar? Yes, this reminded me of India. The impression of Italy was reinforced in the rest of the day.

The Duomo di Milano (cathedral) is a huge building which started off back in 1386, finally ordered for completion by Napolean. In fact Napolean was crowned as the King of Italy at the Duomo. The church with its extensive glass paintings, sculptures, halls and the treasury is THE place to visit in Milan. I have been to a lot of churches here, but nothing compares to Duomo.

We later headed to the Art museum (Pinacoteca Ambrosiana) nearby, it started as the personal collection of Cardinal Federigo Borromeo it has expanded to over 12k paintings and a huge collection of artifacts and manuscripts. The notable elements of the place Raphael’s School of Athens sketch, designed for the fresco in the Vatican’s Stanza della Segnatura, and manuscripts by Leonardo da Vinci, including the Codex Atlanticus.

From here on, we returned back to the square and searched for a small chapel nearby, we could have almost missed the place as the opening was hidden. After this, we took a walk around the Piazza and visited the  Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, this huge building houses the most premium shopping brands with plenty of food joints. It opens on one end towards the town hall facing the Opera house.

It was around this time when we wishes to return, but the return journey was not as fun as i had thought. For the day we traveled to Milan, it was the same as the F1 GP in Milan. We managed to get reserved tickets to Zurich (only 1st class was available). Only to realize on boarding the train that the ticket agent gave us tickets of the next day! We went back to argue, the man just denied it. It annoyed us because he had himself proposed us to buy 1st class as reservation was available! Sadly it was the last direct train to Zurich, we then took another ticket to reach a place called Arth goldau, hoping to catch the last connection for the night to Zurich.

But the train was delayed, it was indeed similar to India again! Our worry was that our connection was in Switzerland, thus there was no way we could now catch it. Everyone was quite uncomfortable, afterall most were visiting from der Schweiz, trains getting late is not a common thing.

As the train entered the Swisss territory, a terrible thunderstorm started off…well i had no hopes left, i thought I’d reach home the next day. But, soon a train announcement was made, the train would now be going to Zurich and Basel. Any passengers who were going to Luzern (as in the original route) should get off on the next stop and they would have a bus waiting to drop them off. You can only expect the Swiss to do this!!!

We did not have a ticket to Zurich, and we explained it to the ticket checker, he said, ‘No problem we are delayed and its on us’.