Tuesday, 2 June 2009
The only way to travel in India - by train!
India is famous for its railways and rightly so. The country absolutely loves traveling by rail and it has one of the largest networks in the world. Do not underestimate the importance of Indian Railways to the social fabric of the country. Yesterday, it was reported on the news that people in Bihar state burned trains in protest of cuts to their local stations. Indian Railways duly restored the slashed services. Can you imagine an Intercity getting gutted at Potter's Bar due to a cut in the level of trains stopping at a local station? I think not...
I took the train right through Assam, from the lower parts of through to the upstate regions. In Assam, the train service is pretty comprehensive, in fact, it is damn good. While timings may be inconvenient for some destinations, the fact is that they serve both banks of the Brahmaputra and so make traveling around Assam without backtracking on yourself a very easy possibility. And it's cheap, even by Indian standards. For anyone with Forex, trains are wonderfully priced - why would you want to travel any other way. They may not be reliable but they are far more comfortable than any other form of land transport. However, due to its location (isolated) and terrain (hilly) Assam is the only place where train use is feasible in the North East. The only other states in this part of India with a train line are Nagaland (a few kms that serve Dimapur) and the narrow gague track into Tripura. Unfortunately, due to the insurgency problems in parts of Assam, the line to Agatarla was closed for the month. Damn!
The train also happens to pass some of the most beautiful countryside that I have seen in ages that included lush tea estates, masses of forests, and paddy fields as far as the eye can see. A slice of Assam. All these can be viewed from the comfort of the train, an open carriage, with fresh air coming in from outside. None of this health and safety rubbish about hermitically sealed coaches and air conditioning. Instead the natural breeze of the outside fills you with the thrills of outside and you feel reality hitting you in the face!
One great things about the railways is in the towns and cities they pass through, there is usually a lot of activity around them. In some towns the railway can dominate its setting. In others, it is merely another form of transport. But the railways seem to have more than the local bus stations. There is always something to eat, somewhere in or around the railway station. In fact, the food served inside the stations are not bad (not exactly great either, but far more superior compared to the pap served at the airports). Very handy if arriving at an odd hour of the day, but you are unlikely to starve if near a station. Also the markets that congregate at the stations, particularly at night are a useful source of fresh fruits and local produce - excellent for sampling delightfully the fresh mangoes or the wonderfully sweet pomegranates that are currently in season.
Apart from the intoxication of the landscape, what I love most about traveling through India on train is peeking the life of so many people. From pulling out of the stations in the towns to seeing the multitudes that inhabit the countryside, the railways are not isolated from the country, but are woven into the very fabric of the nation. All around the railway tracks, at any time of the day or night, people are gathered, going about their daily business. And as a traveller on this vast network, I was able to see a little into the lives of others. Maybe it is the writer in me coming out, but what lies behind each of those faces? What story did that man or that woman have to tell the world. What trials and tribulations go on in that person's mind? I look down from the train onto the life that passes beneath me, but I will never know however, as the train continues on its way...