Travel In Two Parts — Rishikesh: A Change Of Plans & A New Delhi Train Epic

To continue on from Orccha, since there’s no rest for the weary sometimes, and the beginnings of a very long day… We caught an overloaded tempo to Jhansi, only around 15 km thankfully, since Anderson had only one cheek on a seat, and Liz was either hunched over or hanging out the back!
The Jhansi bus stand was only a few minutes walk away, and after a walk through the entire dirty-as-usual bus stand we found one headed to Agra, via Gwalier, our destination. We grabbed seats, decided to consult the LP to determine our plan of attack… and realized that we ought to just head straight to Rishikesh! We’re sure Gwalier is nice, but MP state was very hot, and the sights there were awfully similar to Orccha’s, except that Gwalier is a much larger and spread out city, plus the ticket prices were much higher. Rather than spend another day amidst a ruined palace and its surrounding temples, we figured some cool(er) mountain air and some yoga would probably be more beneficial. When traveling, plans change constantly, as one can cater to one’s whims much more readily. Apologies to all offended monuments in Gwalier, but we did have to endure quite the journey in exchange.
From Jhansi bus stand to Jhansi train station via rickshaw, and after failing to find the non-Reserved ticket station we wandered into the Chief Booking Officer’s (or something equally official title) office seeking assistance. We ended up getting top-notch help; we only had to wait 30 minutes for the next train to Delhi, and from there we would have to switch stations to catch an overnight train to Haridwar (1 hour from Rishikesh by bus). He even went and got our tickets for us, commission and baksheesh-expectant free, saving us a lengthy stint in line. After reading magazines (The Week & Outlook, 15/20 Rs Indian Time-clones) on the platform, a very packed train arrived, and we quickly decided to check out our upgrade options. We primarily ride “Passenger Class,” and then take “Sleeper Class” at night, but in this case only “3AC” was available, the relatively deluxe air-conditioned, comfortable, and almost quiet way we rode out of Agra when we hadn’t gotten any sleep the night before. Since this was a 9-hour ride, and was to compose most of our day, with a hopeful overnight train (but maybe a long night in Delhi) in our immediate future, we figured 400 Rs each extra wasn’t bad, for the quality and comfort, and our general “love of India.” At this point, with 6 months under our belt, we can handle anything that India decides to throw at us, but it doesn’t mean we want to seek it out, since craziness strikes when one least expects it!
Our ride then was very nice, we each had our own bunk with pillow, sheets, and blanket (all most assuredly used several times previously that day – or maybe longer), and were able to read and write. We met a nice Indian couple who had gotten MBA’s in the UK, but had recently returned to start careers back at home. Interesting to get the perspective of “globally-informed” Indians, since unfortunately wandering the streets and clearly being from the West means you primarily encounter touts inevitably selling one or many things – not the most intellectual conversation when it always involves a sales pitch or two! The hours slid by with ease, comfort seems to enable that, and soon enough the New Delhi station was the next stop, just after 9:30 pm. We loaded ourselves, the human pack mules that we are, up with our bulging bags, and headed into the Delhi insanity. We had to catch an auto rickshaw to the Old Delhi train station, and given that our train had arrived late, per usual, we had around 50 minutes to get between the two stations, and then get tickets and find our train. Not the most ideal circumstances, but we knew we at least had to attempt to get there on time; trains often leave late, or maybe there would be another train, but we knew we didn’t really want to get stranded in Delhi for the night, have to seek out an overpriced hotel at around midnight, only to reawaken at 5:30 am to catch an early morning express train.
Rickshaw-wallas refused to be reasonable on price, 220 Rs is simply too much for a few inter-city kilometers of travel, so we waded through traffic, thick with taxis, auto rickshaws, and their attached tout-cum-drivers, to the prepaid rickshaw stand, as a few wallahs had suggested. The line was short, the fare ticket 60 Rs, and somehow, and this is truly unbelievable, the stand was fine with only 50 Rs since we didn’t have any small change. In India, that is miraculous!
Question: why would you, as a rickshaw driver, send someone to the prepaid stand for a 60 Rs ticket, when you could just agree on a slightly higher (for convenience) price – one that is also fair, of 70 Rs or 80 Rs, versus shooting for the metaphoric moon with a price three times that much? How many people a day ignorantly pay such an extortionist price? Probably quite a few 🙂
Delhi’s streets were certainly nasty, and we spent our first 5 minutes in a crushed traffic jam, as taxis and rickshaws flooded the street outside the train station until it was bursting; a cacophony of horns formed a veritable street symphony. Our pace quickened a bit, fortunately the passing minutes remained steady, but even then we were hardly going more than 10 km/hour, due to giant potholes, super sized cows, and plenty of other traffic jockeying for improved road position. We rolled up with not more than minutes to spare, and after looking at the bloated Indian-style line at the one late-night enquiry booth that was actually open, we hastily decided we ought to find our train, and deal with the possible consequences of not having a ticket later, since missing the train waiting in line was clearly a realistic possibility. Attempting to dash through the full-power crowds, we checked the first train we saw, on a platform halfway down, but it was definitely not the Mussorie Express, the train headed to Dehra Dun, Uttaranchal, that would stop at Haridwar as well. We finally found a station employee, who are notoriously hard to track down at crucial times, who pointed to the next track over. Rushing down the stairs, through heavy-package-laden women, we realized we weren’t the only thing moving – our train was departing!
We mutually decided we might as well chase the train, better to try and fail then to come so close to our goal, so we began running after the train, which fortunately wasn’t going all that fast. We paused after 100 meters or so, because the crowd had thickened up, and decided to have one more go at sprinting after our escaping passage from Delhi. This time around luck was on our side, we got even with the last train car door, a woman opened it up, and first Anderson awkwardly jumped on (a 25 kg pack makes most endeavors a bit silly looking), followed by a tossed-water bottle and then a smoother ascent by Liz. Out of breath and laughing at our good fortune as we slid into two available window seats, the karmic balance of India quickly straightened things out: immediately other ladies on the car started freaking out, shouting that this was a “Ladies’ Only” carriage, and that we would have to move right away. Of course the train was barreling out of the station by now, so moving would prove difficult, but most of their calls fell on ears momentarily deaf from elation. Thankfully an Indian man and his family got on, and then the defensive efforts of the “Ladies’ Only” campaign had to be divided, both in male target and in language.
Then the true insanity struck, as while gliding by an abandoned (suburban isn’t really the right terminology here) station outside Delhi, Liz’s head got forcibly pulled down – as her earring was yanked off her by a thieving young Indian male from outside the moving train! Thankfully her earring broke in half, rather than her ear, so only a rose quartz stone, wrapped in 1 g of silver, was taken, but the partially-successful theft happened shockingly fast, and with no warning whatsoever. Ear-pain was not the only result though, as the formerly enraged women turned quickly compassionate, plying us with bananas, demonstrations of their own bosom-hidden (gold) jewelry, and much sympathy. Not misery loves company, just compassion conquers all. Quite the overwhelming scene, and so unexpected – shows that you never know what will happen next…
Somehow we managed to ride all night without being asked about our non-existent tickets, apparently the “Ladies’ Car” is a hideaway hot spot, although sleep on the hard wooden seats was pretty much impossible. We spent hours shifting positions, constant pains of discomfort preventing us from nodding off for more than a few minutes at a time. Early in the morning Anderson switched to a vacant upper berth, but that was just a metal rack that was excruciatingly painful at times, digging into an already sore back. Thank goodness we were heading to the land of yoga!
This train somehow arrived 20 minutes early, just after 6 am, and after a frantic bathroom search (the grimy bus stand stall wasn’t much of a reward, really, beyond mere function), we started to wait for the half-hourly Rishikesh bus. After over-an-hour of standing, a few curious trips to the disgruntled enquiry man, and the question of “Rishikesh?” to every passing bus, we were finally rewarded with a frantic push of the crowd around an arriving bus. Strange, and a little frustrating, that no one waiting for the same bus would mention that fact – the “language barrier” is often all-too-conveniently employed here sometimes…

Rishikesh itself will have to wait for another post, but we found a decent hotel after only a bit of walking around, and got a few hours of much-needed sleep. Yesterday we wandered around with a fellow traveler from Venezuela and checked out a few yoga ashrams, though with limited success. So far we have taken two yoga classes at a nearby hotel, which have gone well. More details to come…

Peace from Rishikesh, where the Ganges is at least cleaner than Varanasi!

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