or, really, How Not to Travel in North India!!!
This could be a trick question in some general affairs examination: what do you do when you have a week long break from work? The most common answer would probably spin around planning well in advance for an awesome holiday. Yet, if you are among those who are planning-impaired for whatever reason (like me), the responses to such questions are meandering essays which would make any reader blink in surprise and shock. Which is not to say is what your reaction will be after reading this account, but still, you are forewarned.
So, yes, I had a week long break from work, and not much spare cash, but I had plans. Yes, you read that right – plans, plural. I wanted to go trekking here, hiking there, and simply visit someplace else. But, for sheer want of advance planning, I was reduced to packing my bags and skipping town at the barest notice. Which might sound very “ooh!” but, in India, is not the brightest idea. For one, I had a destination in mind, but it was all of 1500 km away, and since I had planned at the very last moment possible, I could neither afford to fly, nor get a train reservation.
So, “skipping town” meant going to the bus depot, and trying to figure which was the first bus that could get you as near to where you wanted to go. I had finally picked Kolkata as my destination with the idea that I’d probably spend a huge chunk of my week traveling, and it was almost a prophecy. Especially since the “nearest” I could get to Kolkata from Delhi was Lucknow, which I figured might be about 9 hours at most by bus. And as is usually the case, my “best-laid plans” immediately went awry – the “9 hour” trip lasted 15 hours, thanks to a detailed meander through the western Uttar Pradesh countryside, giving me an in-depth glance at a part of India I had never seen before. I was practically counting off parliamentary constituencies in my head as the bus wound its way to Lucknow.
By the time I got there, I was in a spin as to where to go next. I had hoped to catch a train to Kolkata from Lucknow (which might not have started in Delhi, that is) but the long bus journey invalidated that option – the next available train was 6 hours away, and would take 30 hours to get to Kolkata – in short, not what I had bargained for. Earlier, talking to some other passengers on the bus gave me an insight into what long-haul, low-on-option travelers in India did, the gist of which was “just keep moving”. So move I did, further east, on the first available train, to Varanasi. Again, this was expected to be a 4-to-6 hour journey, but as was becoming a regular feature on this trip, the train went on a circuitous route and took over 9 hours. Now I got to see a lot of eastern Uttar Pradesh, again something new.
Finally getting off at Varanasi seemed like a relief, but I realized that, after nearly 26 hours of travel, I had only gotten halfway to Kolkata. I had no intention of spending another 26 hours covering the remainder of the journey, but again, I couldn’t simply walk into Varanasi airport and fly to Kolkata. So, it was back to the arrival/departure board at the railway station that I went – was there a train, perchance, coming through Varanasi that would get me to Kolkata within the next 24? Joy of joys, in the middle of a board full of head-spinning names and routes, was snuggled a route from Haridwar to Howrah, a weekly, that took just 14 hours!!! Hope, it is said, dwells eternally, but mine was suddenly doing a lot more than merely dwelling – it was dancing! There were about three hours for me to kill before that train, so I went about recharging myself, first by trying to find an internet café (yea, ask me about that again!)
Now, this is the side-effect of random travel, or rather of the disorientation caused by such travel. I completely forgot why I had seven days off to begin with. I arrived in Varanasi on the day of Holi, a major festival in north India, to commemorate which every commercial establishment was shut, including ATMs. Luckily for me, two other needs – which might be considered more important – were sated. There was a pay-and-use toilet-n-bath (very clean by any standards) and an excellent restaurant serving hot lunches even at 11 in the morning! Thus refreshed, I started thinking of how to make my journey to Kolkata comfortable. Thus far my preparation was simply getting a “general” or “unreserved” ticket, which meant sharing a seat with an unspecified number of other passengers.
But there were options. I headed to the reservation counter at the station to check if I could get a reserved ticket, but no, the reservation charts had been prepared four hours ahead of the train’s arrival. I was told to check with the traveling ticket examiner’s office, where I was directed to the actually traveling ticket examiner – who would arrive with the train. It was back to hoping and waiting, and discovering that sitting down any longer was a painful option. As the Bard once said, all’s well that ends well, and so it was, that, thanks to it being a major holiday, I managed to not just get a reserved ticket, but one in the 3-tier air conditioned compartment at that! Except for two meals and two trips to the toilet, I slept all the way from Varanasi to Kolkata, and thus did not see even an iota of any part of the geography in between. And oh, total travel time from Delhi to Kolkata, including the short “layover” at Varanasi? 43 hours.
I was luckier on the return leg – I got a “Tatkal” train reservation straight from Kolkata to Delhi, but it was still a 40 hour trip back. Trust Indian Railways to make the unequal nearly equal, despite no efforts from me at making life more “interesting”.
above a post by Bucketeer Raghu , who dons many hats – a poet and a creative writer, Raghu loves traveling, his hectic schedule permitting.
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