Traveling the Indian Railway Life

Unless you are staying on an Indian friend's house, the most fun and true way of getting to know the day-to-day and customs of the Indians is to use the Indian rail network.
Photography / Text: Gui Galembeck

Traveling in India is certainly not one of the easiest but undoubtedly an essential journey in anyone's life. It takes a lot of willpower, as well as being open to the many contingencies and dealing with the abundant Indian bureaucracy.

That said, namastê, welcoming to India, a wonderful, receptive, stunningly colorful country with its greatest legacy, the Indian people themselves. Unless you are staying on an Indian friend's house, the most fun and true way of getting to know the day-to-day and customs of the Indians is to use the Indian rail network.

Traveling the Indian Railway Life - India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
Traveling the Indian Railway Life
India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck

I bought all my tickets online and although the system is extremely confusing and bureaucratic, involving emails with copies of our passports and even the release of an Indian cell phone number so I could book on the website, with a little patience and lots of insistence you will be able to travel. Yet, buying the ticket does not mean that you will have your accent on the train, since the list of travelers only applies a few hours before the trip. It is important that you confirm that your ticket was accepted the day before your trip or arrive at the station and wish yourself luck.

At this point I remember an interesting story, the scam of Incredible India.

Traveling the Indian Railway Life - India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
Traveling the Indian Railway Life
India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck

Incredible India was a massive incentive program for tourism in India, it was accepted worldwide and succeeded from several points of view, dramatically increasing tourism in India but at the same time triggering a network of small scams in Delhi tourism agencies, which make everything to sell you overpriced travel packages, from forging local epidemics to convince you that the tickets you have are false, or simply saying that because you are not Indian and you could not buy online, you will miss the train tomorrow and the salvation would be of course to buy new tickets through the agency or even plane tickets at tremendous farce.

We had to be strong, countless times during the first two days in Delhi because every tuk tuk driver I used wanted to drop me out on a Incredible fake agency. 

Traveling the Indian Railway Life - India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
Traveling the Indian Railway Life
India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck

My journey began in Delhi, towards Varanasi, the sacred city for the Hindus, a journey of just over 790km that took more than 16 hours due to numerous delays and unforeseen, like two hours stopped in the middle of nowhere waiting for I don’t know exactly what reason.

In total I crossed over 3000 km by the Indian railways.

After Varanasi, I returned to Agra, Jaipur, and followed to Rajasthan inward, returning later to Delhi. In that same period more than 660 million people used the system that takes approximately 8 billion passengers per year. It is one of the largest railway networks in the world and connects all of India, expanding to neighboring countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Traveling the Indian Railway Life - India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
Traveling the Indian Railway Life
India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck

From the beginning I realized that the Indians have no limits, which put me in some very unusual situations. Starting with the fact that I was looked at all the time, not for some kind of recrimination or prejudice, but out of curiosity, the Indian takes no effort to notice and to be noticed, that is no chance that you go unnoticed during your trip. I even created an expression, "The incredible art of facing people," in which they are real masters.

Traveling the Indian Railway Life - India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
Traveling the Indian Railway Life
India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
I even created an expression, "The incredible art of facing people," in which they are real masters.

The Indian trains are huge and there are several traveling classes, from the hard seat to the first class cabins. The first is really hard but the second has nothing of the western first class, but there is possible to have a little privacy. Usually I traveled in the third class, which has cabins with six berths, two of which are retractable. Of course this means that, during the day there will be a lot of people sitting on your bed.

Traveling the Indian Railway Life - India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
Traveling the Indian Railway Life
India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck

Leaving Varanasi towards Agra, I woke up in the middle of the night with a family invading the six-berth cabin in which I was, almost by a miracle, alone. My wife was in a side, most private cabin. They were clearly talking about me, but I pretend to be asleep and just kept watching. It seems that I had put my backpack in the wrong place or something. I woke up with the smell of Tchai and a nice gentleman offering me a little plastic cup, smiling and doing that typical Indian head gesture.

Trough the window snapshot - India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
Trough the window snapshot
India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck

Traveling the Indian Railway Life - India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
Traveling the Indian Railway Life
India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
Traveling the Indian Railway Life - India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
Traveling the Indian Railway Life
India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck

Another unusual situation, after changing a few times my berth because I was not happy with mine, the train filled at the night while I slept and the next morning I woke up with a gentleman sitting on my bed, looking out and making his first prayer of the day. That was because right there on my berth, shines the first rays of morning sun. I wondered if that was his bed, but incredible as it may seem, he didn’t bother with the fact that I woke up and instantly took a camera from under my pillow and started to photograph him praying. After his prayer finished he just said thank you sir, got up and left.

Traveling the Indian Railway Life - India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
Traveling the Indian Railway Life
India. North India. New Delhi. © Gui Galembeck
I wondered if that was his bed, but incredible as it may seem, he didn’t bother with the fact that I woke up and instantly took a camera from under my pillow and started to photograph him praying. After his prayer finished he just said thank you sir, got up and left.

What I can say is the short period I spent on the trains in India put me face to face with the ordinary Indian at his daily routine. I was, even for a short period of time, like part of their families. This experience made me understand things that I would not normally have the opportunity to learn. Some things have become obvious, such as the fact that Indians usually travel in groups, which has no better time for a Tchai than now, and other not so great like, time is just an invention, everything that can be, will be delayed. I was in the right place to try to understand a little more about Indian culture. It is certainly something that you should do at least once in your lifetime. Namastê.


Curiosities about India and its train network:

  • It is the seventh-largest country by area, the second-most populous country (with over 1.2 billion people), and the most populous democracy in the world.
  • India is notable for its religious diversity, with Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, and Jainism among the nation's major religions.The predominant religion, Hinduism, has been shaped by various historical schools of thought, including those of the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras, the Bhakti movement, and by Buddhist philosophy.
  • The name India is derived from Indus, which originates from the Old Persian word Hindu, which was the historical local appellation for the Indus River.
  • The spice trade between India and Europe is often cited by historians as the primary catalyst for Europe's Age of Discovery
  • Railways were first introduced to India in the year 1853 from Mumbai to Thane (Great Indian Peninsula Railway) 
  • The Allahabad-Jabalpur branch line of the East Indian Railway had been opened in June 1867. Brereton was responsible for linking this with the GIPR, resulting in a combined network of 6,400 km (4,000 mi). Hence it became possible to travel directly from Bombay to Calcutta. This route was officially opened on 7 March 1870 and it was part of the inspiration for French writer Jules Verne's book Around the World in Eighty Days.
  • In 1951 the systems were nationalized  and the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited (IRCTC) is a department of the Indian government under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Railways, in charge of maintaining the functioning of the system.
  • It is one of the world's largest railway networks comprising 115,000 km (71,000 mi) of track over a route of 67,312 km (41,826 mi) and 7,112 stations.
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Location

Traveling the Indian Railway Life

DB Gupta Road Ajmeri Gate
New Delhi, North India, India