Experiencing Indian transport
India is a huge country to travel through. Since I traveled from East to West and Northward into the Himalaya, I spent a lot of time on several means of transport. Each different travel option I tried could be defined as both charming and challenging.
Minivan Once I had crossed the border with Myanmar, I had 18 hours to cover 350 km through mountainous areas. I had to catch my train to travel 50 hours from East to West India. After sharing a ride with military checks every half hour, I had arrived in Imphal and stepped into the first minivan I found. They told me to hop on quickly. There was not even time to go to the bathroom. I liked the attitude and was confident about catching my train in time.
I sat in the front, next to a talkative guy who kept on putting his hand on my leg. I didn't like it and pushed his hand aside a couple of times, but he was persistent. I tried to stay polite, after all I would spend 12 hours next to this guy. Very soon the conversation shifted towards religion, as had happened many times during my trip. Whatever someone believed in, I always respected their beliefs and opinions. When asked what my beliefs were, I would always say I was 'independent'. My Muslim companion had trouble accepting this and was on a mission to convert me. I didn't mind a healthy, respectful discussion about religion. It was always interesting to learn about different values and motivations. He was not that argumentative though. Only Allah was the true God and all the rest was a lie. At one point he even wanted to hear me say that I accepted Allah as the true and only God. When I refused to say those words, he started saying my life was a lie and that I needed to find the truth. Kindly, I asked him to stop, or I would cease the conversation. He apologized and changed topic, while subtly sneaking in some comments from time to time.
Around 9pm, the fatigue started kicking in. After almost four consecutive nights on sleeper buses, I had missed too much sleep. Unfortunately I could not really sleep in the minivan. There was no seat belt and I couldn't comfortably lean back. To my right was the clutch and to my left was Samir, my Muslim friend. As I fell asleep, I fell against the clutch or dashboard too many times, each time waking up suddenly and half in shock. It was not healthy and very exhausting. After a while it was becoming too much. It felt almost like torture. I couldn't handle it anymore. Samir held me half in place, so I wouldn't fall and he told me I could get a better seat at the next stop. I looked forward to falling asleep in a better chair. Unfortunately Samir's promise was in vain and I had no choice but to continue in my awful position. There was something positive though. It was 1 am and we were 30 km away from Dimapur. With the bumpy conditions of the road, that would take us one hour. One more hour and it would be over. Fifteen minutes later we stopped. 'Another break?' I wondered. When the Hindi conversations finished, I got to know what was going on as well. The government was working on the road with dynamite that night, which meant no car could pass until 5 am. We had to wait in the town. People settled everywhere into a sleeping position on the floor and accepted their fate, and so did I. I was so tired, that sleeping on a stone floor felt as easy as carving warm butter.
Finally, around 4:45, we started go get ready to drive again, followed by hundreds of cars and trucks. I was glad we were almost first in line. We drove with lots of traffic coming from the other side and made our way towards Dimapur, slowly. I checked my clock every 5 minutes and it was going to be tight. as we approached town and the train station, we made many small stops, to let some other passengers out. Every minute was counting. We arrived just in time and I jumped on the train to Delhi.
Trains in India India is renowned for its well organized train network, which enables more than a billion people to travel around. The train has several different classes:
The difference between the AC classes is mostly the amount of beds per square meter. Sleeper class is basically 3AC without air conditioning and is very popular among Indians. General class is the most economical option and the most crowded. There are no beds and people are packed together, day or night.
Sleeper train My first days in India were spent almost entirely on public transport and most of all on the 50 hour ride from East to West, so that is where I got to experience Indian culture for the first time. At first I was overwhelmed by the many people asking for money. Almost every half hour someone came to beg. There were cripples, children, old people and transgenders. Everyone had a reason to resort to begging but most of the time they did not have another choice. Transgenders, for example, were discriminated by society and were unable to find a job. They would ostentatiously put on a show for men and embrace their differences completely. They were persistent and most men gave money because they understood. Anyone who begged ended up surviving because of the genuine solidarity and in the end it helped me as well.
Since I had caught my train last minute, I was on the train without any cash. There was no way to pay food by card or to withdraw money on the train. I had no sim card, no WiFi, no money and thus no access to food. I had to rely on others. As I hoped for a longer break at a station to rush to the nearest ATM, two uni students approached to help me. They shared their lunch with me, gave me WiFi through a hot-spot so I could contact the home front and helped to organize the ATM mission. We talked about several things and I got along with them quite well. I wasn't going to be alone on this two day journey.
Arriving at a station, where a twenty minute break was planned, two of us sprinted to the ATM. We tried to withdraw money and found out my card wasn't accepted there. It would only work in Delhi. We tried transferring money through some apps. Unstable internet on a moving train didn't make this quick and easy. While we waited for a successful transfer, I was lucky enough to partake in each meal and snack they feasted on. True generosity is giving without expecting something in return
Their stop was at noon at the second day, while I was going further to Delhi till the next morning. I wondered how I would survive after parting ways with them, but didn't want to ask even more generosity. When they arrived at their station, we said goodbye and took a selfie. On top of their generosity, they also gave me a bag of apples, a bottle of water and 150 rupees for lunch and dinner. They understood my situation and genuinely cared. It was warming my heart.
General class My first experience in general class was not planned. I had always booked sleeper classes in advance, but this time I did not have time. I had heard I could book second class tickets at the station. When I arrived at the counter, I realized second class meant general class and not 2AC. When I looked for a seat, I already noticed how full the train was. There were five people on each bench, three people sitting on luggage racks and two passengers were sleeping on the floor. It was a puzzle that did not seem to fit. However people were positioned, there was always someone uncomfortable. Sleeper class seemed a luxury compared to general class. When several people in the wagon were feeling sleepy, I suddenly felt a head resting on my shoulder. The man did not ask or say something and did not plan to remove his head. Half an hour later I found myself with another head in my lap and every fifteen minutes the guy on the floor pushed our legs aside. Some people were drunk, others were talkative but everyone had one thing in common: "No English!" Some people would talk to me in Hindi continuously even though I had told them several times that I only understood the basics. I barely slept that night, but still had an interesting time. People were nice to me and I never felt unsafe.
The second time I was in general class, was by day. I did not expect uncomfortable situations this time. As I stepped on the train, I realized I had to reconsider my expectations. The train was completely packed and there was no place to move. The train was so full, people were standing with eight or more in the toilets. Just when I thought the train could not get fuller, the capacity of the train was challenged. Each time five people left, fifteen people boarded. People squeezed inside and some hung up hammocks to win some space. At a certain point, ten to fifteen passengers were hanging on to the outside of the train, trying to push themselves inside. There was a lot of shouting and pushing and some passengers started to feel unwell. I quickly realized that general class was not for the faint hearted.
Sleeper bus I was going to be picked up by a sleeper bus to Manali. I made sure I was early at the pickup point. When I got there 90 minutes in advance, I was not sure if it was the right spot and most people around me were not able to confirm. After a while some other travelers arrived who were also going North and my worries subsided. Even though the others were not heading to Manali, they were at least heading in the same direction. Many of the passengers waiting to go to Kahsol started to panic and call customer service when their bus did not show. Around half an hour later, they were relieved to see their bus arrive. I didn't bother because I went to Manali with a different company and still had to wait. When my bus was 45 minutes late I started to doubt the arrival from my bus as well. My phone rang a moment later. It was the bus company telling me they had passed already. This seemed strange since I had been at the spot the whole time. They told me to wait 5 minutes. A little later I was picked up by a tuktuk and a man who would take me to the bus down the road. I explained I hadn't seen any bus to Manali, but he just repeated we were going to the right bus. As we approached the bus, I immediately recognized it as the bus going to Kahsol. Again, I implied I had a different destination. My questions were waved aside and I was shown my seat. Since there was a seat for me, I didn't ask too many questions. I relaxed and went to sleep.
When I woke up in the morning I asked fellow passengers where we were and they replied we were almost in Kahsol. I didn't react much because I knew it was another five hours to my destination. When we arrived in the tourist town, everyone got out of the bus except for me. As I sat in an empty bus, I realized something had gone wrong. Once more I explained the driver I had to go to Manali. Suddenly I was listened to. Now, they understood. Even if they understood, they were not able to take me there. Normally I wouldn't care too much about destinations, but I had a trail running competition coming up and I wanted to get there in time. Eventually a local guy intervened and said he would help me find a local bus to Manali, free of charge. The guy was very friendly and helpful. He understood the unpleasant situation I was in. He helped me arrange the bus and I took off for another five hours on an uncomfortable bus to reach my actual destination.
Motorcycle When I traveled through India, I was intrigued by the thousands of motorcycles on the road. The classic Royal Enfield had really caught my eye and I could not stop dreaming of riding it. I had never been on a manual motorcycle before, but the idea was very tempting. In India, I felt like it was possible, so I started to think of planning a motorcycle trip. When I was in Manali, I heard about a beautiful road to ride on a bike. It was not too challenging for beginners so it was the ideal motorcycle trip for me. In my hostel, there was a girl who had been waiting to join someone on the back of a motorcycle for a short trip. Because of her local connections, she was able to get some discounts. To avoid any trouble, I bluffed about my motorcycle experience. Everything went quickly and before I knew it, the papers were signed and we had a Royal Enfield for the day. The shop was next to an uphill road and I already had trouble figuring out the gears and starting properly. I tried to stay confident and gave it a couple of tries. Eventually we took off towards the mountains. I drove carefully and enjoyed the scenery whenever I felt safe enough on the road. The bike was smooth to ride and it felt amazing. Every kilometer I felt more and more confident and the road was getting less bumpy as well. After a couple of kilometers, we were stopped at a police checkpoint. We were told motorcycles were not allowed that day because there was too much snowfall. We could not go any further. The trip was over and we had to go back. Even if it had only lasted four hours, I still had an amazing time driving a Royal Enfield in the beautiful, snowy, Indian mountains.
Hitchhiking One of the things I really wanted to try in India was hitchhiking. I had heard looking for a lift in the North could turn out to be successful, so I ended my week in Manali early to try my luck. I started itchhiking 'west' in the direction of the border with Pakistan.
In India you don't stop drivers with the classic thumbs up, but by pointing one hand down towards the road. Most vehicles that passed were buses, tuktuks or taxis, which made it not easy to find a car. Several people urged me to take the bus and even wanted to give me money for the bus. Each time I tried to explain I wanted to hitchhike for the experience. They didn't seem to understand. The taxis were white cars with often a small concealed sign that mentioned 'tourist vehicle', so on several occasions I mistakenly stopped a taxi. A voice in my head was whispering to give up. In my younger days, I had hitchhiked hundreds of times and often I had waited for more than five hours on the same spot. This made it easer to ignore the doubtful voice.
After two short rides, I had arrived in Kulu and had found myself a good spot down the bumpy road where most cars slowed down. Only ten minutes later a truck in psychedelic colors, as most Indian trucks, stopped next to me and a Sikh driver invited me in. He was very friendly, but his English was just as good as my Hindi. Since he wanted to ask a lot of questions most of the time I replied with several English answers until I had guessed the question and could provide the correct answer. It was not smooth, but not dull either. Explaining my flexible destination also turned out to be complicated, but when I found out his destination I assured I wanted to go all the way to Chandigarh, ten hours down the road. Since I was never 100% sure if he understood or if I would actually get there I didn't book any accommodation. As the hours passed, we stopped several times for chai or meals. If I only mentioned paying, he quickly stopped me and insisted on paying for all my drinks and meals. Denying these kind gestures would be offensive, so I remained very grateful. During the ride we took some pictures and after a while he asked me to put on some music. I proudly put on some Belgian music, but he didn't seem pleased. I had some trouble understanding his next request though. He repeatedly asked for 'sexy American video'. I assumed he wanted to see a video clip of an American song where girls were scarcely dressed and dancing seductively. Of the top of my head I thought of Eric Prydz, Call on me and Benni Benassi, Satisfaction. At first he watched and did not seem satisfied. Soon he was clicking along the video until he arrived disappointed at the end. He asked again. "American sexy film, American sex film". I was not sure, but I think I understood. I asked to be sure. "Do you want to watch porn?" He nodded enthusiastically and his grin widened. He wanted to watch porn on my phone while driving. I felt hitchhiking in India was definitely going to be a new experience. I googled 'porn' for him and let him have his fun. It seemed like an eternity while he clicked on all those videos and kept on clicking along to find the most exciting moments. I tried not to pay too much attention to it. My focus on the mountainous roads was twice as alert since my driver had lost half his attention to porn. When my battery and data were almost completely drained he gave my phone back. When we had another chai and still 100 km to go to Chandigarh he asked if I wanted to take a bus to the city. I asked if I had to leave so he could get some sleep, but I didn't get a clear reply. We kept on guessing what the other tried to say and eventually we drove again. Twenty kilometer further he asked the same question and I said I was okay trying to catch a bus or another ride even though it was almost 4 am. There was some more friendly confusion and eventually he drove off. Luckily I found another ride to town after another twenty minutes.