Sheryl writes from India.

Part 1: Puri
Part 2: Kolkata
Part 3: Khalaigat
Part 4: Assam
Part 5: Trains
Part 6: Sikkim
Part 7: West Sikkim
Part 8: Darjeeling
Part 9: New Delhi

Home > Part 5: Trains

Today we took an 8-hour train ride from Guwahati in Assam to New Jalpaiguri (Siliguri) in North Bengal (9am-4:45pm).

You can make train reservations by computer or at the train stations or booking offices in town. Many stations have an interactive kiosk at which you can look up trains and availability. Then you must get a blank reservation requisition form and fill it out with your train number, destination, desired class, etc. Then you wait in line and hand it to the clerk who looks it up on the computer and books you if your request is available. There are several classes, from hard seats to air con padded sleeper cars. If your request is not available for some reason, the clerk returns your form and you can change it and hand it back. There's a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy but it keeps people employed.

Trains are a life unto themselves. The Indian rail system is a huge operation. There must be hundreds of thousands of train cars. There are trains coming and going through all stations at all hours of the day and night. Sheet, pillow and blanket are provided in 2nd class sleepers and higher classes (air con), so that's a huge laundering operation they must run. Also they feed you if you want, kind of like an airplane meal.

We were in a 2nd class AC 3-tier sleeper. There are long facing benches on the bottom and two tiers of fold-down benches above. The train wasn't crowded so people were spreading out. You can sit up on the bottom or lie down and sleep either on the bottom or upper bunks. There's no room to sit higher without smacking your head. Most of the other passengers in our car were middle-class business men. Everyone takes off their shoes and puts on flip flops or the like to walk around, or they go barefoot in the bunks.

The trains are their own little villages. From the moment we got on the train, the activity never ceased. All sorts of vendors get on and off the trains at various stops. They walk the length hawking their wares which include cameras, flashlights, body massagers, bedspreads, underwear, bottled water, bananas, boiled eggs, cucumbers, peanuts, papayas, luggage bags, all manner of cooked food, milk/sugar coffee and tea. It's a non-stop parade and people buy all sorts of things. I had some boiled eggs, a peeled and spiced cucumber and some spicy puffed rice snack.

Interestingly, also passing through were the he/she girls - hermaphrodites to one degree or another - who are basically outcast. They don't attend school but society provides for them in that they sing and dance at weddings and when children are born to earn some money. Of course, this is the case for those who are born to poor families. If a middle-class family were to have a child of indeterminate sex, they would have every opportunity that a child in the West would.

The toilets on the trains are on either end of the cars, a hole with a foot pad on either side, a tap near the floor and a sink at waist level. You can see the track go by if you look down. I had some icky cookies to throw away and there was no trash can so I took them with me to the toilet. I tossed them down the hole when we were stopped at a siding and immediately a dog gobbled them up. I had to wait for him to finish before I could pee.

Heading to Gangtok, Sikkim tomorrow.