My 21-hour journey from Delhi to McCleod Ganj- Part I

My trip from Delhi to McCleod Ganj was quite the deliberate adventure. There is a direct flight from Delhi to the region, but I chose not to use that for a couple of reasons. One, due to my incredibly last-minute travel plans, flight tickets were offensively high when I looked them up. Plus, after doing some research on the internet it seemed that the most exciting and interesting way to get to McCleodganj was the way I ultimately decided to do it.

First, there’s the overnight train from Delhi to this town called Pathankot in Punjab. This, in of itself, isn’t such an adventure except for the sequence of events that led up to it. I had planned my travels such that when I got to Delhi, I went straight to Agra to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, and take a train back to Delhi with about 3 hours to spare before my train to Pathankot. Murphy’s law…my train back from Agra was over two hours late and delayed further en route to Delhi. So the train that was supposed to be back by 7pm in fact made it back by 10:15pm! To add to the chaos, the train stopped at New Delhi train station, where as the train to Pathankot was to leave from Old Delhi train station. When my train pulled in to New Delhi station, I was still hopeful that the other train would be running late as well and I could still make it. I rushed out and took an auto rickshaw that cost me about Rs. 110 to get to Old Delhi station. As I entered the delapitated station bursting at the seams with travelers, I asked around and found out that the Dauladhar Express had indeed left without me. Dejected, I decided to see if there were any trains leaving that night to the same destination. Wading through the sea of people, I stood in line at what I thought was the ticket booth, with an unusually large number of men surrounding me. I felt a tap on the shoulder, and someone informed me that I was standing in the men’s line, and the women’s line to buy tickets was on the other side of the station. Embarrased and relieved that I didn’t have to deal with men who were staring at me like they had never seen a female before, I found my way over to the women’s ticket line.

As it turns out, the women’s line was worse. Maybe not surprisingly, women are a lot more aggressive and less likely to stand in line quietly. And I also discovered that the concept of personal space is in essence non-existent in India. I had women literally pressed up on all sides of me, yelling at those who they thought were cutting the lines, for over an hour as I stood in line desperately hoping I could get a ticket out of the station that night. Around me, people were starting to spread out on the station floors to catch up on some Zzz’s. It was around 11:30pm and I was exhausted from a long couple of days of traveling. My backpack that suddenly felt like it was filled with rocks and I could feel the dryness in my throat worsening.

An hour later, the line was not moving as fast I would have liked and I was starting to think of alternate options. Even if I got up to the ticket counter that night, the likelihood of a train leaving for my destination that late in the day as highly unlikley. There was a very good chance that I would have to figure out a way to spend the night somewhere. To add to the problems, my cell phone was dead and I couldn’t call my family to ask for advice. As I was lost in thought, I was suddenly brought to the present by a commotion at the front of the line. A woman was yelling, and the ticket vendor was banging on the the glass window he sat behind. And before I knew it, with no explanation, the ticket counter was closed and word passed down the line that there were no more tickets available for the night. I stood there in shock, were they freaking serious?!

I put on my backpack and walked around the station with no clue what I was going to do. I could spend the night in the station and buy a ticket the next morning but I was worried for the safety of my belongings (and frankly myself). The station was situated in Old Delhi, called that for a reason. It was not as easy to get around, especially as a girl traveling alone, and more so at midnight. I found a cafe that was attached to the railway station. I decided to sit there and charge my phone as I figured out my plans. I called my aunt who lived in Bangalore and explained my predicament. I asked if she knew about any hotels in the area. She said she didn’t but my uncle lived about an hour away from the station. It was after midnight and I was reluctant to bother him but I didn’t see any other choice. I called him and he immediately offered to come pick me up from the station and take me back to his place. Relieved, I ventured over the food counter to eat for the first time in over ten hours.

I spent the night at my uncle’s place and woke up the next plan with a tentative plan. I would go over to the train station to book a ticket on the same train that I had missed and spend the day exploring Delhi. I found my way to the New Delhi train reservation center and found that all the trains heading to Pathankot that night were booked solid.

Let me stop there to explain the Indian train reservation system. You purchase a “reservation” for one of the various classes of seats. In most long distance trains, there are the usual classes. There is the sleeper class, the cheapeast one, where you are most likely to see a cross section of “real India”. Next come the 2nd and 3rd classes that are not air conditioned. The next level of prices are for the 3rd and 2nd class A/C sleepers. These are air-conditioned cars with cabins that have four or six sleeping berths (four in 2nd class and six in 3rd class). Finally, the most elite class is the 1st class A/C. You are in an enclosed cabin with three others, and get the most amount of privacy and comfortable travel experience.

When you make a reservation on a train, you can either be confirmed for a ticket or be put on the waitlist. If you are confirmed, you get an allotted seat number. If you are on the waitlist, the higher up you are on the list, the more likely you are that you will get confirmed for a seat when people cancel their reservations. You can check online on the indian railway website, using what is called a PNR number, to see if you have moved up the wait list and have gotten a confirmed seat. Of course, you can not travel without a confirmed seat. Here is a great resource I found with detailed information about Indian train travel:

When I made a reservation for the train leaving that night to Pathankot, I was put on the waitlist at #22. I was pretty confident (as was the ticket vendor who made my reservation) that I would get a confirmed seat on the train by the time it left. When I checked a couple of hours before the time of the train, I was at #2 on the wait list. I was confident that I would get confirmed by the time I got to the railway station.

Of course, I had jinxed myself. I got to the railway station and found that I was still #2 on the waitlist and hadn’t gotten a confirmed seat on the train. But there was no way I was going to delay my travel plans any further. I got into the 2nd class A/C compartment where I had made the reservation, and found a cabin with a bunch of empty seats. I figured that the liklehood of people showing up to take all those seats was pretty unlikely, and that I could beg the ticket collector to assign me to one of those seats.

As it turned out, this wasn’t as easy as I expected. The ticket collector said flat out there was nothing he could do because the train was booked solid and people would get on the train at different stations along the way. I begged him to do something, telling him I was traveling alone and didn’t have anywhere to go that night. After about two hours of moving from one empty seat to another, and a bribe of Rs. 100, the ticket collector finally assigned me to a seat. I had gotten my firsthand experience with bribing and the Indian railway system. As I climbed into my berth that night and got under my blanket, I thought to myself that as stressful the experience had been, it had been quite the adventure.

Stay tuned to hear more about my travel story from Delhi to McCleod Ganj…

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