Monday 28th March 2011
Continuing my journey from Manali to Rajasthan I have already mentioned arriving at some unearthly hour of the morning in the concrete jungle of Chandigarh on the bus from Manali. My neighbour from the bus had advised me that the railway station was 5km from the bus stand and that the local rate for a rickshaw would be 100 rupees – obviously with no other options I had to pay this, but it seems a bit steep when the last 10 hours on the bus had cost only 540.
Sure enough the rickshaw drivers stampeded into the crowd of disembarking passengers and of course I ignored them as usual. A few followed but soon gave up, so I was free to try my haggling again. I picked on one quieter driver and beat the price down from 200 to 100 quite easily, just walking away dropped 50 rupees from the price, so off we went. First though we had to wake a family of three – mother, father and baby who were asleep in the rickshaw – so sorry I am for disturbing your night!
If its only 5km then it felt more as we sped down wide and desserted concrete avenues, each one joined to the next by a roundabout exactly 800 metres or 1200 metres apart, according to whether going north or west, such is the geometric layout of le Corbusier’s wildy un-Indian idea of the ideal living space.
The first real sign of life was closer to the station where a few lonely people were walking to work. The station was also concrete and quite well organised, with the familiar smell of the groups who had slept in the open all night. I had an hour to kill before the arrival of the Kangra Shatabdi so there was nothing to do but check my name on the charts – all present and correct – and sit to wait, with the ever growing crowd.
Shatabdi’s are the premium trains – when I was last here there was only one route served – Delhi to Agra – but now they are much more common. The premium price includes a meal, but I was actually quite impressed to receive a litre bottle of mineral water, choice of newspapers, morning tea and biscuits, mango juice and then a hot breakfast with another tea.
The seating is 2 + 3 with about 100 seats per carriage, or 80 in First Class, and up to 20 carriages that’s almost 2,000 breakfasts to serve – but each carriage had a staff of three, plus a catering manager onboard, in addition to the other few dozen members of the train crew. My fellow passengers were on their weekly commute to Delhi – out on Monday morning and back on Friday night.
The three hours to Delhi flew by and I was soon in the queue to leave my bag for the day in the quaintly called Cloakroom on Platform 1. I was still there an hour later, such is the performance to leave a bag. For each person a form has to be completed with name, address, mobile phone, ticket number and number of bags. I got number of bags wrong – I should have put “1 bag” and not just “1″. Once the initial form inspection is out of the way, the bag is inspected to make sure it can be locked. Tick. Then you have to sign the form before it is passed to the computer operator, who painstaikinly copies a version of what you put into the computer, which then prints out a ticket on a jumble sale dot maitrix printer, which chewed up the card as it came out. The number of the ticket is then written in yellow wax crayon onto the bag before the passenger has to take it into the shelving area and choose a place to put it. I put it right up on the top – about 8 feet from the ground, thinking most indians are a good deal small than me and would be less likely to touch it at this height.
Free from baggage, I ventured back to the streets of Delhi and couldn’t think what to do to pass the day – it was now 10:30 am, and my next train left at 21:55. The heat was incredible after the cooler mountain air – stifling in fact, when combined with the relentless traffic fumes.
I headed for an old favourite for a cuppa – Nirulas in CP – Connaught Place. I can remember the cool relief from the streets about 12 years ago and was somewhat taken aback to discover it is now a fast food place – burgers and ice creams along with some indian foods. I must say that my strawberry milk shake with ice cream went down a treat, but it wasnt what I’d expected. I wandered on around the enormous circle of Connaught Place and decided to check out another old favourite – Ringos Guest House – delighted to report it is still there and identical externally – no sign of even a coat of paint for the last 20 years.
Altogether this part of New Delhi is awful and I needed to get off the streets, so headed for the old travellers favourite – Paharganj – which is also unchanged in years. The decaying concrete frontage of cheap shops leads into a labyrinth of side streets full of internet cafes, cheap hotels and guest houses.
I sat in the cool haven of the Ajay Guest House which has a large courtyard deep inside with a German Bakery, internet cafe and some shops – and it made a very pleasant place to sit and pass the time of day, out of the heat, and with internet for laptops at 25 rupees for the first hour and 10 per hour thereafter it was a real bargain. The food and drink was not so great though. The worst cup of tea so far, and a cinnamon roll baked several days ago I think.
I was determined not to carry my bag around Rajasthan but in its current location at New Delhi Station I would have to return here, which could be a problem if my arrival at Old Delhi station on Friday was delayed, so wearily I checked it out from the cloakroom – thankfully a much less administrative process, and headed for the other side of the station for a rickshaw to Old Delhi. Looking at the map you could be forgiven for thinking it is walkable, but unusually, the rickshaw meter was running, and we clocked up 7.6 km for 60 rupees. Not bad!
It wasn’t his day, my rickshaw driver. He thought he had bagged his catch of the day when I turned up but his first problem was me insisting on paying the fixed rate at the taxi and rickshaw office. 55 for me, and 5 for my bag. We set off into the traffic and I smiled as we went through a red light as if it was perfectly acceptable. No it isn’t, according to the policeman who stopped us. Lots of paperwork was generated for the 100 rupees fine, which the driver showed me later, looking for sympathy. I told him it was very cheap compared to the same offence in England and this confused him. I loved the description of the offence written by the policeman. “Red Light Jump” – one of those lovely uses of English in the Indian way.
We sped on, not quite so fast this time and soon got embedded in the Old Delhi traffic – it was amazing that despite solid traffic everwhere, we continued to make progress. We passed a hospital – “My mother is in hospital” announced the driver. Not sure what to say in return, he explained she was having an eye operation. “My father dead”. Oh I see. Errr…. the vote for sympathy was building.
I handed him the pre-paid taxi slip, grabbed my bag and left him at Old Delhi station. I think he realised quite soon that he wasn’t getting any sympathy or extra money – there are a lot of more needy people here than a rickshaw driver even on a bad day.
I had a couple of hours which soon passed – nothing in an Indian station happens quickly, and the train was on the platform well over an hour before departure. I had another good Thali at the station restaurant, bought some provisions in an almost total repeat of my first train trip from here, and made my way to Platform 16 where my 1st Class compartment awaited.
1AC is the best class of travel on ordinary trains, in which you actually get a compartment with a door, and either two or four beds. I was very pleasantly surprised by how comfortable it was – especially as I was in the two bed coupe and according to the documentation plastered on the train side, I was to be alone!
There were only 10 1AC placed on this train, and there were 3 vacant – which is very strange as this train was compeltely overbooked to the extent that there were no more tickets being sold, even waiting list. I bought a Taktal ticket – the second wave of ticket sales – which is released at 8am on the day before travel. I’m now wondering if I might manage to get an upgrade on the way back, which is also completely full in 1AC! I am so glad I chose 1AC as I got a superb night’s sleep – the lower bunk is by the window and is huge - better than the upper one for space and view. I could of course choose either.
Through the night we were an hour late – but after the last station before Jodhpur we miraculously caught up and arrived only 15 minutes behind. So here I was in Rajasthan.