It seemed like a good omen for the start of my journey, when my my China Southern Airbus A330 pushed back from the gate at Tullamarine airport just 1 minute late at 22:31. I was flying from Melbourne to Guangzhou for the first leg of my journey, and as we taxied I flicked through the extensive AVOD library in the screen in front of me, wondering how I would find time to sleep! I did manage to drift off, and woke without knowing where or when I was. I raised my sunshade and saw the sun rising over the ocean; a red crescent melting into orange then yellow and blue before disappearing into black, starry sky. As we approached Guangzhou, massive grey clouds loomed close below us, looking like granite marshmallow mountain peaks.
We landed at the massive Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou, before taxiing for what seemed like an eternity. There were planes parked everywhere; every gate was occupied and smaller aircraft were parked on every spare section of apron, the large passenger terminal not able to cope with the even larger volume of aircraft using it. We pulled up at a gate, and the large plane emptied slowly out over the aerobridge.
Our aeroplane had pulled up at the domestic terminal, so after disembarking using the aerobridge, we were directed down a set of steps onto the apron, where we were squeezed onto buses to take us to the international terminal. I passed through international transfer, and found the gate for my next flight. I was sent to gate A5, which turned out to be a bus stop. I showed my boarding pass, and was directed onto another bus, which drove us out to a China Southern 737-700 parked on a distant section of the apron.
I joined the queue to climb the steps up to the plane and a large group of young Indian males pushed into the middle of the queue. After reaching the steps, another Indian, this time an older man dressed in a business suit pushed directly in front of me. I decided to say nothing (we were both going to get there at the same time anyway) and found my seat, next to a young Indian man, who had already taken off his socks and shoes, and had his bare feet resting on the armrest of the seat in front of him. The suited Indian who had pushed into the queue was sitting a couple of rows ahead, taking selfies on his mobile phone.
This aircraft was much older than the A330 which had brought me from Melbourne. There were no individual screens on the seat backs, just a few screens that lowered from the ceiling, showing the same movie on a loop. Soon after we took off, breakfast was served and after breakfast, I dozed and awoke about an hour before we arrived in Delhi.
Our plane parked at the terminal, and I followed the signs to customs. I groaned inwardly when I saw the long, slow moving line for foreigners, but then saw the e-visa lane, which only had about 5 people in it. I quickly and easily passed through, and picked up my luggage from the carousel before exiting into the airport lobby. I found a shop selling mobile Internet, and after spending probably more than I would have outside the airport I was off, 4G hotspot in my possession.
I exited the terminal, and was surprised at how orderly it was; I had heard stories about tourists being mobbed by taxi touts and beggars and was prepared for the worst. In contrast, I was politely offered 2 taxis on my way to the metro station, but was otherwise unhindered. The subway to the station was almost deserted.
My first train was leaving from Delhi Junction station (also known as “Old Delhi” or just “Delhi”), which is near Chandni Chowk metro station. I purchased a token from the booking office and entered the station. Like Beijing, passengers entering the Delhi Metro must go through a metal detector and put any bags through an X-Ray machine (a big pain when you’re coming from the airport!). After passing through the security checkpoint, I went down to the platform. I had just missed a train, but they run every 15 minutes, so I didn’t have long to wait. The station was spotless with white stone floor and were platform screens and doors along the length of both platforms.
The sleek 8 car CAF train arrived at the platform, and I stepped aboard. It was lightly loaded (about 10% full), with 2+2 seating and luggage racks near each door, but being wary of luggage theft, I kept my bags on the seat next to me. There were LCD screens as well as LED displays showing the train’s progress and upcoming stops, all signage was in Devanagari (Hindi script) and English.
The train slid smoothly out of the station, and automatic announcements were made in Hindi (a smooth, calm, upper class male accent) and English (a posh, older female accent). The line was part underground, part elevated and on the elevated track, there was a good view of the south western suburbs of Delhi. It looked a lot like the less affluent areas of many Chinese cities; large overgrown vacant areas, near derelict apartment blocks and people roaming around wastelands.
We made 3 intermediate stops, on the 19 minute journey (which would take up to 2 hours by road), the train terminating at New Delhi railway station. I had to interchange with the yellow line here, so I followed the signs through the underground labyrinth and to another security checkpoint for the yellow line platforms. This checkpoint had a longer queue, but the line was fast moving, so I was soon through the scans.
The yellow line was much more crowded than the airport express (much cheaper too). I waited on the platform, and a very modern locally made subway train arrived. On the front of the train and the side of each carriage, there was a large, yellow number 8, signifying that the train was 8 coaches (cars) long. I was pushed along with the surge of the crowd into the train. Two stations later at Chandni Chowk, I had to force my way through the crowd to get to the door. I followed the signs to Delhi Junction station and exited into the dust, heat and humidity of the Delhi afternoon. I walked along the cracked and broken footpath in front of the station until I found an entrance, and passed through another security scan.
Inside, the station was a flurry of activity; trains were shunting, continuous announcements were being made in Hindi and English and people were everywhere. A train stood in a platform, passengers boarding from the platform side and also the track side. A MEMU (long distance electric train) departed, with several passengers running along the platform behind it, jumping on as it picked up speed. Another train was waiting its departure time, passengers climbing down from the second class cars onto the tracks and walking around. Passengers were lying in the shade on the concrete floor of the concourse, waiting for their train to arrive.
After watching the chaotic scene for a few minutes, I found the cloakroom and entered. Inside, 3 old men sat around a table behind a counter. Behind the men, were large racks full of bags. The men were talking and smoking and completely ignored me. After about 5 minutes of waiting, I said “I want to store these bags here”. One of the men reluctantly got up from the table and gave me a form to fill in. I filled in my details, the man sighed, waved me to come around the counter and put my bags on a shelf, then said “we close four to four-tirty”. Asked if they would be open at 9pm, he gave the typical Indian gesture that is not quite a shake of the head, but not quite a nod and said “sure, sure”.
I left the station and made my way back to the metro station, where I caught the train back to New Delhi station to confirm my long distance train bookings at the Foreign Tourist Booking Centre. I walked out of New Delhi subway station and across the road into the main railway station. I knew the Foreign Tourist Booking Centre was upstairs, so I walked up to the second level, but couldn’t see any clues as to where the office may be. I asked a soldier on a security checkpoint, who said “platform 1” and pointed around the corner. I passed through, and found myself on a very long footbridge. A sign showed the way towards platform 1, with the additional information stating that this was the way to the Foreign Tourist Booking Centre “adjacent to platform 1”. Following the signs, I walked along the footbridge, across 16 platforms and down the other side, around the front of the station to the taxi stand, up some stairs and along a deserted corridor, where I finally found it!
I walked into the air conditioned office, and saw a couple of westerners sitting at desks with booking agents. There was a ticket machine near the door, inviting me to press a button to take a ticket. I did so, and was ignored by the 4 agents who were apparently doing nothing. After a suitably annoying period of time had passed, one of them reluctantly invited me to come up to the counter. I pulled out my pass, and told her that I needed to confirm my bookings. The agent told me I needed to see another lady over the other side of the room and gestured towards an older lady at another desk. I walked over, and sat down at the desk, where the older lady was talking on her mobile phone. She didn’t acknowledge me, and kept talking on her phone for several minutes. Once her conversation was finished, she hung up and asked what I wanted. I explained to her, and she opened a big ledger. I hadn’t told her my name, but she found me in the ledger, along with a hand written list of all of my bookings. She pulled out a wad of tickets and began matching them to the entries in the ledger. After going through each of the 14 bookings in detail, she said “you have 2 days left on your pass, where are you going?” I muttered something about Agra, and she immediately started punching numbers into the computer in front of her. Before I knew it, she had booked me a return ticket to Agra on a luxury express train and ordered me a vegetarian meal. After this, she said “you should go to Jaipur, you will like this”. With a few more keystrokes, she had booked me a ticket on a similar train to Jaipur and return the following day (all at no additional cost).
I left New Delhi, and took the metro back to Chandni Chowk where I re-entered Delhi Junction station. I spent some time just watching the long trains and massive crowds, marvelling at how the people climbing up on the wrong side weren’t hit by the frequent trans on other platforms. At face value, it was wildly unsafe, but in reality, it worked. Everyone knew it was dangerous, so they kept extra vigilant.
I was fatigued from the long overnight flight and had seen a sign to the “upper class” waiting room (for AC class passengers). As I was travelling in 1AC class to Kalka, I was entitled to use the room. An old lady by the door made me sign in with my ticket details, before letting me into the disappointing room. Inside, paint was flaking off the walls and were a few hard chairs and some low tables with a few passenger dozing on them. The room was not air conditioned, and a few small fans moved the hot, humid air around. I entered, and lay on one of the tables. I accidentally dozed off, and I awoke with a start, not knowing how long I had been sleeping for, I checked my phone and found it had only been a few minutes, but I set my alarm just to be on the safe side.
I went to use the toilet, and found that next to this there was a bathroom of sorts; a private cubicle with a stool, a large plastic barrel of water and a ladle under a tap. The room had a tiled floor, sloping towards a plug hole in the corner. Having walked around all day in the Delhi humidity, the chance for a rinse off before an overnight train journey was very welcome.
It was finally time to collect my luggage and find my train. I paid the cloak room attendant (who was much more efficient when it came to collecting my money than he was taking my bags), and found my platform on the departure display. In the repetitive drone of recorded announcements, I heard “Train 12311 from… Howrah… to… Kalka… is running approximately… 60… minutes behind schedule. We deeply regret any inconvenience this may cause”. I groaned inwardly; this was my train, and I just wanted to get on board and go to sleep! I found a seat on the platform and watched the chaos until my train turned up.
Eventually, it arrived, and I found my car; the only 1AC class car on the train. The car attendant led me to berth C (the only twin berth compartment on the the train) and said “you can lock the door, you are only one man in here tonight”. I thanked him, and was asleep before the train pulled out of Delhi.