Varanasi Junction, India

Maybe the reason I’m down on Varanasi is the fact that I’m entrapped in this odd little prison. Organizing onward transport here is where we come unstuck. This seems as good a time as any. It has to be done; an explanation on the saga to end all sagas.

Welcome to: The Indian Train System

Believe me when I say; here comes the science.

Over a million people travel every single day. There are 8 class systems from cattle to a/c first class. There is an online booking system, that is apparently has the world’s highest online traffic per any online system in the world. Maybe this is as 99% of people have to re-visit 10 times before they can make sense of it all. Or the fact that is crashes daily between peak hours.

For the purpose of this story we want to spend 1 or 2 nights in Varanasi, and then travel thousands of km right across India to the West Coast to the beaches. However you can basically take the faffing that is about to follow and apply it to ANY and EVERY journey in India, every time you want to move to a new city.

Like China they warn you to do pre-book, or at least try to sort you onwards ticket as soon as you arrive, which is a pain but understandable I suppose with so many people in transit. However unlike China, with a similar population, this is not a seamlessly efficient affair with a system known as ‘queuing’ Oh no no no.

In theory you can go online in India and book a ticket. Except, and this is no exaggeration, tickets pretty much everywhere go on sale 4 months before and are snapped up within hours. This changes to seconds within Indian Holidays, which it is for the months of March/April. The next tier of tickets is called RAC (Reservation against Cancellation) which means they allow for overbooking and no-shows. It means you are guaranteed to travel but you just have to go through the stress of running around a 12-15 carriage long train as it pulls up at the station cross checking a print out that is taped to each door way, looking for your names for a last minute seat or berth like a crazy disorganized school register. You can’t walk from carriage to carriage either, one you are on you are on.

If you can’t get RAC you next option is ‘Waitlist.’ This means you join an online pecking order of extra tickets that they hold back in case MORE people cancel. You can literally hear people in internet café’s all over the country scream in excitement when you occasionally see a waitlist of 1 to 20. This means you are a likely shoe-in. Most of the time however these lists hover around 150 – 300. Or in our case, on the date that we want to go to Kathmandu in one month’s time, at 450?!

Oh I forgot to mention that all of the above is irrelevant 99% of the time because you can only book online if you are outside of India, or if you have an India mobile number. So once you are here, THEN you start the fun and games of the Tourist Quotas in the special offices in Delhi, Agra, Mumbai etc. These involve filling in intricate tiny pieces of paper together with a copy of your passport and all but a retina scan, before queuing for up to 2 hours. This is all for a tourist quota of approx 8 extra seats per train. The odds ain’t good.

Finally we have Tatkal. A word that haunts us for the last 3 days. Tatkal is the last chance saloon. They are an ‘emergency’ extra extra extra quota of 200 tickets that go on sale at 8am, 24h before some select trains, in which the whole 1 Billion odd residents of India compete for. The only way you can thrown you ballot into the box and compete for these is by camping out at a Tourist Office at a station from 6am, day after day and hoping that the one Indian guy behind the desk plays ball. This one guy holds ALL of the power as so whether we spend our next 4 weeks on a palm fringed beach or on this hell hole city. Let’s call him ‘Train God.’ He is in his 40’s, glasses, wears a suit with trainers. On the surface he seems stern but as we learn he has to be. With great power comes great responsibility.

Thursday: We get to the office gone 12pm. Rookies. Traingod laughs in our face. He explains the system goes live at 8am. Best strategy is to fill in our paperwork and prepare for battle in the morning.

Friday: 7.20am. We arrive early, or so we think. Except there are already a handful of people here, including an Indian couple and three Chinese guys. We all sit and eye each other up from across the waiting lounge. Its dog eat dog. Newbies walk in afterwards but TrainGod shoes them away. He knows from experience they have no chance. They hover around however trying to ask him questions, argue the toss or pester him for train numbers and schedules that are more complicated than algebraic equations.

All that our Tatkal gang care about is keeping the new people away from distracting TrainGod with their ridiculous enquires.  Its 7.59am, we’re about to go live!  He has our requests piled up as he cracks his knuckles and prepares. I should add that on his 1980’s PC and one finger typing system, each person’s ticket takes at least 5 mins processing time. Plus more for the Chinese guys who have complicated names that take extra seconds of typing, god dam it.

It’s all over by 8.20pm. We are 6th in line and we don’t make the cut. It means another 24h stuck here. Traingod’s work is done for the day. He tells us to get here first in line tomorrow. We dare not argue with him, we sit and smile and thank him, terrified that at the sight of a hand we could be relegated to the bottom of his almighty pile. We half joke about sending him a muffin basket, a la Ross off Friends.

Saturday: 6.20am. Seriously. It’s 2012. We bitch all morning that there has to be easier ways. The scariest thing is, here there isn’t! We could go on like Groundhog Day for weeks. We have visions of growing old here. It would actually explain quite a lot about the state of Varanasi. Its dysfunctional streets are not filled with residents, just people who cannot leave! We are there before Traingod, he obviously has a lie in. Although I’m pretty sure his eyes flicker in recognition as we thrust our forms into his hands 1h early. I try and explain that we’ve also written a plan b. If we can’t get to Bangalore, we’ll settle for Chennai. But he is optimistic. “You are first in line” he says confidently, with a look that says “we got this in the bag.”

We sit with bated breath to decide the fate of our train to freedom. The clock ticks to 5 past. Yesterday he sat in silence, processing for about 15 mins without any big reveals until the end when the (also 1980’s) printer sprang to life and started printing the little gold dust tickets. Maybe he could feel our desperation but after a few mins he glances and gives us the smallest of thumbs up. We’ve done it!

We pay and as we leave we sneak him a little Chai tea. As I slyly placed it on the side of his desk and say thank you, he first refuses it and then caves and cracks a teeny tiny smile.

Never have two people, been so ecstatic to be taking a train to Bangalore. Nor should they. It’s a horrifying 46 hours!

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Connecting to %s : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

Blasts From The Past…

March 2012

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