Public Transport in North India: Part Two

The main reason I drifted from Rishikesh to Chandigarth is because I’d read somewhere that there’s an amazing train ride that ascends up into the Himalayan foothills from a place called Kalka.  Kalka is just a half hour by bus from Chandigarth.

As my bug infested hotel was a 10-minute walk to the bus station, I inquired at the enquiry booth about getting a train ticket from Chandigarth to Kalka, and then a ticket on the toy train from Kalka to Shimla, the small city that’s colloquially referred to by the people of India as ‘The queen of the hills’.

The man in the enquiry booth gave me the toy train times.  The first was at 4am.

I thought: Why not check out at 9pm, kill some time on my computer in a 24-hour restaurant, and then make my way to Kalka for the picturesque toy train which is said to provide some of the most beautiful views on earth. 

I quickly pondered upon the Oslo to Bergen train in Norway that I’d taken on a few occasions and adored. It rivals as one of the most scenic train rides on the planet.

I contemplated:  Tomorrow morning I’ll have been the proud consumer of two of the most splendid train rides known to mankind.

The man told me that the best thing  to do is take a bus to Kalka as they go every half hour all night.  I thought he said that my bus would be right over there at number 43, at that same station.

I thought: Platform 43.  I saw the numbers and figured, ah, nice and easy.  I’ll get a bus from here to the Kalka railway station and get on that awesome toy train.  It’s called a toy train because it ascends slowly up a curving track and bends around the mountain like something from a fantasy train set that a youngster gets from his parents or Santa.

Can I buy a ticket for the toy train?

General seating.  Ticket don’t need.  Buy ticket Kalka station.”

Will I get a seat?”

Yes. Be there before 4 o’clock and have seat easy.  Only cost 37 Rupees.”

Thanks

I hiked from the 24-hour restaurant to the bus terminal at about 1:15am.  The temperature was warm and breezy.  Perfect.  I glanced down at many homeless people sleeping on blankets put down on earth and pavement.  They were all men and boys.  Some pressed against each other for safety.  Some were awake, laughing and joking.

I rationalized:  At least it’s not freezing like in northern climates or high altitudes.  But then again, India has almost no social programs.  Homeless shelters don’t exist.

I got to the station and didn’t find platform 43.  It only went up to 40.  I said to myself: Darn. I should have double checked that earlier, but the man made it all seem so easy.  The  fact that I’m at the wrong atation must be because of a language barrier.

I asked people and managed to find out that the bus to Kalka was at the sector 43 bus station about seven kilometers or four miles away.  I was at the sector 17 station and was under the impression that there was only one station.

I hadn’t slept the night before because of the euphemistically expressed: ‘monsoon’ bugs that I prefer to call bedbugs.  At this point I was trying to conserve my energy. It would be to no avail as things had already started to go awry,  as another drifting excursion had just begun.

I bargained with a rickshaw driver who looked to be about 17 years old.

100

50

80

50 is my only offer, take it or leave it.”

Ok 50.

We started walking towards his rickshaw when he said:

60

What?  You just said 50.

I am a poor man.”

OK 60.”

The roads were not mobbed at this hour.  The ride still seemed long.  He stopped by the station.  I counted out 75 Rupees and gave them to him.  On that dark morning before sunrise, a big smile lit up his face.

I figured: An extra 15 Rupees isn’t nearly as much to me as it is to him.  He gave me good service so I’ve gotta be decent.  The kid is not begging.  He’s genuinely trying to earn money so his family could eat more than likely.

There were a lot of people at the Sector 43 bus terminal at around 2:30am.  Because my mere stature was an anomaly, different people made comments.

Hello…  Where are you from… Which country…”

They were friendly and helpful.  A young educated guy came up to me:

Where are you going?

Kalka.”

He asked around in Hindi and got me to the spot I needed to be in.

Then another guy came up to me.

Where are you going?”

Kalka.”

We are going to Kalka too.”

Then I’m taking the toy train to Shimla.”

We are taking the toy train to Shimla too.  Travel with us.”

Like most people in this country.  They may have felt sorry for me because I was traveling alone.

The bus came barreling in, tipping to one side as it pulled a complete u-turn.  Before stopping, the vehicle was in reverse, rapidly backing into its spot to let people off and pick people up.  It was chaos from my perspective, but no one elses.  The bus was mobbed.  People were trying to get off and on simultaneously.

My new travel companions were only going to Shimla for the day, so they didn’t have luggage with them.  One of them took my smaller backpack without asking, because that’s what you do if a person’s traveling with you and you can help.  I may not have made it on that crowded bus with both packs.

These guys were post-grad engineering students from middle-class or better families.  It’s common for people in India to pursue Ph.Ds in various fields of engineering.  They were well rounded, open minded and spoke great English.

We have to stand on this bus.  But don’t worry, it’s only a half hour to
Kalka.”

Make sure you keep your walled in your front pocket.”

Thanks, it is.”

I held on to the bars above with two hands while the bus swayed and sped, passing cars on slippery, dark streets.

I was exhausted.  I needed a bed.  More importantly, I needed to keep track of my valuables. My bigger, red backpack was on the floor amongst the bus mob’s feet.  If I’d lost it, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world.  Most things in it would’ve been somewhat easy to replace.  The greater concern was for my smaller, green backpack that contained my passport and the very important visa inside.  The small green pack also contained many pieces of electronics.    Normally that bag stays with me.  Anyway, it was super safe with the helpful stranger who was acting as a brother, as he and his buddies only wanted me to have a great experience in their land.

That bus dropped us off on a dark road.  There was no one in sight.  We walked about half a kilometer to the railway station.  I thought about the man in the enquiry booth, the government employee:  How did he expect me to figure all of this out on my own?   I  would have never found that station.  Who knows if I would have managed to get off that bus in the right spot? 

One of the guys bought all of our tickets for the toy train.  Another one of them bought us all cups of Chai. They wouldn’t let me pay.  I was their guest in India.

We got up to the toy train which had only general seating. No seats were assigned.  There were only a few cars.  We saw people desperately trying to cram in.  All the seats were taken.  There was nowhere near enough space to jam everyone in.  Those who had made it were already squeezed in like makerel in a flat tin box. Yet, people were still trying to shove themselves in.

I thought:  Five hours of standing crammed, not able to move, how masochistic.

This was not only a surprise to me but also to my new travel companions.

There was another train leaving at 8am.  Two of the five guys that I was now with
argued for a couple of moments in what may have been a mixture of Punjabi, Hindi and English.  The most logical solution was to get a bus.  The guy that bought the
tickets only got half of his money back.  That’s the policy in India, even though it was impossible for us to get on. There is no arguing.  They sell more tickets than they have.

I couldn’t help but think:  Don’t they have a limit as to how many tickets they can sell?  Apparently not.  This is ludicrous.  No, wait, it’s not ridiculous, it’s only different.

We then trekked for at least a kilometer before we got to a bus stop.  Another old, rickety, run-down bus on its way from Delhi stopped.

Sorry Michael, we will have to stand for a little while.  Some of these people will be getting off eventually.  Then we will get seats.”

The toy train was an easy write-off as the sky had formed a huge barrier of dense fog; It was as thick as the contents of a pool would be if it were heaping with cotton candy.   This was not the season for stellar views on the toy train.

The bus immediately started going uphill.  Dawn without sun suddenly provided light.

We stopped at a place to eat.  The boys bought me a coke in an old-fashioned
classic bottle that contained maybe 9 or 10 ounces.  My body despises coca-cola and most soda.

I reflected: There is absolutely no reason for people to drink this poison.  The genius soft-drank manufacturers have succeeded in brainwashing the entire world with their liquid nightmare

As the six of us stood in a circle swilling our cokes, I felt like we were being filmed for a ‘Let’s bring the world together though Coca-Cola‘ campaign.

I drank it out of politeness.  It didn’t taste bad, but it would contribute to my nausea later in the ride.

We got back on the bus and had to stand for about an hour and a half before seats opened up.    As the bus moved as fast as it could up slick, winding mountain roads, I was holding on to the bars above with both hands  I’ll be reminded of this ride until the bicep soreness goes away.

I managed to have great conversations with a couple of the guys while they were standing up against me.  The topics were about the U.S., the development of India, spirituality and religion in India, and how they want foreigners to have a great experience in their über-unique land.

Finally I got a window seat but had the hump above the right back tires below my feet.  My ability to move remained compromised; but at least I was sitting.  One of the boys was pressed against me while a girl was pressed up against him.  Three people crammed into each seat on either side.  Everyone on that bus was pressed up against one other.  Small children cried and slept on their parents laps.  Because I was so exhausted, I managed to doze on and off a bit.

In four hours the bus had taken us about 2,000 meters or 6,561 feet.

We arrived at around 8:30am.
The rain was pouring.  One of the five guys that I was with quickly disappeared. He was the one that knew Shimla, the one that had been many times.  The other four guys were clueless like me.  Wiped beyond comprehension, on my fourth or fifth wind, I said:

Hey you guys.  I can’t wait around here in this rain, in this crowd.  I’m beyond exhausted and nauseous too.  I must go and find a bed.”

I asked locals at the station.   There was too much of a language barrier for anyone to help me.  Then a man pointed uphill.  I walked up a steep ascent to the main part of town, at times finding shelter and stopping to ease the queasiness.  All I wanted to do is collapse.   I was suffering from the combination of severe fatigue and the need to relieve myself.

I came across an elderly Australian man.  He pointed one way.  I came across an Indian tourist, he pointed in the opposite direction.  Finally I found the hotel that I’d written down from the Lonely Planet. It was expensive.  At this point, money was the last thing on my mind.  I just needed a bed.

Come back at 10:00 and I have room ready.”

Next door there was another hotel. It was much cheaper and the guy said he’d have my room ready in five minutes.  Relieved to have a place to bed down, I went through the typical Indian bureaucracy of filling out passport and visa info with the man.

In no time the room was ready.  I took a super hot shower and then laid my weary head down in great relief.

–   –   –  –   –   –   –   –  –   –   –  –   –   –   –

AT THE TIME OF WRITING: For tonight, I’ve booked an overnight deluxe bus which is slated to take me to Dharamsala.   I have a ticket with a seat number.  I’m looking forward to a ride with a predetermined seat and hopefully a few less surprises.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. ANNIE: Thanks. So happy you’re enjoying the posts. The deluxe bus ride wasn’t really deluxe, but I had two seats. The driver was cool. I had Chai with him the two times we stopped. He drove like a madman, there must have been 20 or 30 hairpin turns where he had to really muscle that steering wheel. He was driving quickly over them on slick foggy narrow roads. He was mad about passing other vehicles too. But I had two seats to myself and they reclined so I was able to rest my head.

    SEANTONIO, ANNIE: I always have that pack in my hand when I’m on the drift. The dude just grabbed it as they were’nt gonna let me carry two. I was a part of their traveling entourage. So all was fine. I just try to always be mindful of the passport and the plastic. Without those things I’m in huge trouble.

    DAVID: Yeah. That bed was a great relief.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Annie on June 29, 2011 at 00:20

    All i can say is that this “drift” is making you write more! Your posts have been riveting. I also thought your small backpack was history! Very happy it wasn’t! What a nightmare that would have been!

    I found it amusing that after the crowds, intense heat, bed bugs, no sleep, no food and stress, you blamed the Soda for making you nauseous. *LOL*

    i hope you get to the town you want safely quickly and uneventful for a change! Hope the “deluxe” bus was as good as you hoped it would be. Can’t wait to hear about that ride!

    Reply

  3. Posted by Seantonio on June 28, 2011 at 19:47

    “fog as thick as…cotton candy” now that’s thick, nice! good to see you meet some trustworthy folks, too. I was half waiting for a twist in the story where you had to chase down whoever had your smaller backpack…

    Reply

  4. Congrats on making it to your bed in one piece!

    Reply

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