To stop train..pull chain!

MI06 063




I hadn’t been on a long distance train in a while. I was going back home to Hyderabad from Delhi recently. As the train chugged along the heartland of India, through UP & MP; all those memories of journeys past came flooding back.


There was a time when smoking was allowed in trains and there used to be ash trays in every coupe. I have very faint memories of travelling in meter gauge trains as a kid, I would be propped up on a suitcase in the aisle, I’d rest my elbows on the window and watch the villages rush by.


As I grew older two things changed, firstly we had the broad gauge conversion and addition of the side berths and more importantly I no longer fit comfortably on the window sill. Against my mother’s wishes and much to my delight, my father then started escorting me to the door, so I could get a better view. I also remember being shown bogies being shunted out or added, engines being changed, was even lucky enough to enter the engine cabins a couple of times.



What fascinated me all along were the many quirks of travelling by trains in India. The hawkers and how their wares and calls varied every few kilometres, the smells from the packed lunch boxes of your co-passengers, the large families and their countless bags of snacks, the bunch of middle aged men sneaking in a peg or two while playing cards on tables made from suitcases, the announcements on the platform.


DSC01508 Of course it wasn’t all quaint and wonderful always. You sometimes are stuck with grumpy old men who like to sleep very early. They make you turn off the lights, shut the windows, pull down the middle berth; all way before you really want to. Standing at the door is the best way out at times like these.  I’ve also had to spread a newspaper out and spend the night near the doorway on occasions, but all this is part of what make travelling by trains a fascinating experience.








I searched for ads that the Indian railways used to run in the 80s & early 90s, but couldn’t find them on youtube. Sarkari ads, that laid out a manual of best behaviour and etiquette. A bunch of bratty kids, performing acrobatics in the compartment, egged on by their parents, they pull the chain, and much hilarity ensues. Hope someone has them on tape. While we’ve come a long way from those days and have luxury trains running certain routes, thankfully the quintessential train experience hasn’t changed much, just that people now jostle for mobile charger space and not berth space.




Airplanes get you to your destination very quickly, and that is about all they do. Air travel, is far removed from ground realities (no pun intended) and is suitable for business travel. Trains on the other hand let you take in a lot more, quite literally sometimes, you end up with the metallic smell of trains on your clothes and person. As you notice the water and sugar content in the tea vary across stations every few kilometres, as you chat up your fellow passengers, as you look out the window, you are acquainted with a side of the country and the world that never existed for you earlier.



We’ll be heading to Sikkim in a couple of days, another long train journey awaits us, 31 hrs from Delhi to New Jalpaiguri, making it possibly the longest train I’ve ever taken, in the past I’ve traveled from Hyderabad to Gorakhpur and to Trivandrum, both nearing 30 hrs.  Hopefully, fog etc won’t cause much delay. I also hope to catch the toy train in Darjeeling. That should be fun.





Homestays Vs Hotels

Very few people in India are comfortable with the idea of booking-less travel. As far as transport is concerned, going gung ho might not be the best thing to do, especially if travelling with kids and other dependants. But because of this, there seems to be a wrong preconception about accommodation as well.

On my return from Ladakh, many family and friends asked the routine questions of how was the trip, what did you see and where did you stay. Though many of these questions were just small talk and thus, deserved curt replies at best, I made it a point to elaborate when it came to the subject of hotels. And I always started my discourse with the line – “I never spent more than 100 bucks per night on the entire 25 day trip.”

It seems imprudent to consider advance booking to a location as tourist friendly as Ladakh. Hotels are only a luxury available in the town of Leh and its outskirts. At all other destinations like the lakes and the valleys, home stays are the only option available. Home stays are true to their name and offer everything that a cosy mountain home can. They are not luxurious or adorned with meaningless stars, but are comfortable, culturally grounded and humble. Usually a family is in-charge of running the household which includes cleaning up, cooking and undertaking the herculean task of arranging the necessities like water and fire. Ladakh is an arid land and common people struggle to live on a day-to-day basis, let alone provide luxuries of a typical hotel only to burden the environment and tax the local human resources. There must be no space for unnecessary indulgences in such a remote part of the world.

There is also something intrinsically romantic about these home stays which is best experienced firsthand. There is a kitchen lined with innumerable utensils, both big and small. If there are less people living in the home then you could even request the owners to let you cook. It will be a great way to exchange stories and cultures between the cities and the villages of Ladakh. Not only this, while staying your fill at home stays, there is no regard for stupid check out times or room keys at the reception. It is supremely safe, like one’s own home, and very amicably managed. For once while travelling, look at the people serving you as human beings and I promise that every issue will be sorted out. Hotels are way too expensive for backpackers like us, but even if a wealthy family spends less on their stay, they will not only be less of a burden to the environment but will also be able to spend their saved money on some other stuff like adventure sports or something.

I was always a no booking kind of person, but that was because of laziness. Now, I have reaffirmed my belief for no booking travel but with a much more acceptable reason backing it up.