The eighteen-hour overnight train had just pulled out of Jaisalmer station when there was a girly scream from the next compartment in our sleeper car. “It’s a big mouse!!!” this from a young Yorkshire backpacker. “Oh no madam, it is quite OK,” responded one of the Indian travellers. “It is most definitely not a mouse, you see. It is a rat,” he stated in a matter of fact manner that only worsened the panic. There was a shuffling up and down the train as people lifted feet and belongings up off the floor in a collective, rodent-induced panic. The rat never re-appeared, maybe like the rest of us he had found a comfy bunk and was rocked to sleep by the swaying motion of the train as it sped on to Delhi.
We arrived just before midday and joined the throngs of people in the Old Delhi station and set off in search of the pre-paid taxi terminal. “There are no pre-paid taxis here. Come! Come! I will take you. Where do you want to go?” This from a greasy taxicab driver who had latched onto us the minute we got off the train. We set off down the platform looking for proper advice and found a railway official who was just locking his office door to go out for lunch. The taxi driver was still there. When we asked for directions to the pre-paid taxis, the driver interjected with a stream of Hindi, presumably telling the railway official to ‘just ignore these two and send them with me and I’ll take them off your hands’. Thankfully the rail-man raised his voice telling the driver to go away and gave us our directions. The taxi driver still tagged along, insistent that there was no such thing. In the end raised voices and strong language (with implications involving sex and travel) were required to get rid of this pest. His taxi ride would have cost £5 – £6. Our pre-paid tuk-tuk cost 70p.
And so into Delhi where our first taste was literally the actual taste of the city itself as we set off across one of the most air-polluted places on the planet. By the time we reached our B&B there was a smack of brick dust in our mouths: the taste of Delhi smog. The government is trying to tackle the issue by only permitting cars with odd/even number-plates to drive on consecutive days but from a quick survey it seemed, as with most rules in India, this was largely ignored by the throng of two-stroke and diesel engine vehicles on the streets.
We were faced with the prospect of a couple of weeks waiting for parts, depending on customs clearances and also obtaining those Myanmar visas. We were stunned to find the parts already here (took about 4 days by Fedex thanks to the efforts of the great team at Motobins in UK). They were waiting with our new friend, Bunny Punia, a motoring journalist in Delhi who we had been introduced to from an Indian friend back in Stevenage. Bunny dropped off the parts next morning and kindly took us to the Myanmar Embassy where we submitted our application forms and passports through a hole in the wall along with a bankers draft that Bunny also helped us arrange in a last minute panic (be warned they don’t take cash). It was a strange transaction, as we didn’t actually see anyone the whole time just a pair of hands collecting documents and a muted instruction from within to return at 4pm next day when the same hands returned our passports with the Myanmar visas.
We had the next few days to see the Red Fort, wander in wonder around the India Gate, a huge cenotaph, commemorating over 70,000 Indians who died in service to the Commonwealth in the Great War and enjoy big city life (i.e. bars) in and around Connaught Place. The city centre has beautiful wide roads with lots of trees and parklands but our time here was marred by the fore-mentioned air pollution and the persistence of hawkers, vendors and tuk-tuk / bicycle rickshaw drivers relentlessly trying to press their goods and services upon you. Then there are the legions of beggars just asking for money. Delhi was the first place in India where this really got to us to the point where we saw ourselves as merely a pair of walking ATMs here only to supply the local demand for cash.
And what poverty… On our way to the Red Fort we were stopped at a traffic light waiting for the green to go right at a T-junction. As the tuk-tuk took off, I was aware of something scrabbling down among the wheels of the cars, trying to get out of the way. It was a young man with skin and clothing the same colour as the road. He had no legs and was moving around on his hands and backside, living life as a beggar at exhaust-pipe level. It is a miracle he hasn’t been run over and killed as he was totally invisible to everything above and, as we well know, every Indian in charge of a vehicle is on the most important mission in the world and can barely register what is directly in front of him never mind what’s down below on the road. This little vignette left us with an indelible image of a horror that just shouldn’t be allowed but it seems there is a similar mutilation at every set of lights.
It was time to leave Delhi. In Jaisalmer we had used the excellent services of Indar Ujjwal, local Travel Agent at ‘Adventure Travel Services’ to book the train. Not only did he get us decent sleeper-class accommodation, he was a fellow motorcyclist and took our bikes into his house for safe keeping while we were away. Our hotel, the excellent Tokyo Palace, took care of the rest of our baggage and riding gear keeping everything safe for our return. In Delhi we sought a similar travel agent just off Connaught Place. ‘Government Approved’ it said on the window. “There are no trains to Jaisalmer until 27th” one week from now” said the agent. He then showed us a booking screen on his PC with the trains indeed fully booked. He then checked the ‘system’ again and could get us on flights to Jodhpur and a train to Jaisalmer for just over £200. The sleeper-train cost £35 for the pair of us. We declined and set off for New Delhi station, with its dedicated ticket office for foreign tourists.
We were intercepted by a smart young man at the station gates who asked for our tickets. I explained we were looking the Foreign Tourist Ticket Office. He told us we had come to the wrong place; we needed to go to the other side of the station and gave directions to go back the way we came. This was in fact the start of a run-around scam involving several players all apparently trying to be helpful yet designed ultimately to lead us back to the travel agent. We wasted about 45-minutes following their stupid directions by which point Mags, who had been onto their game all along, called time and we marched back to the station to find the foreign tourist office right there. We were both hopping mad at the end of it.
Saturday evening and the train ride back to Jaisalmer. We returned to Old Delhi station well ahead of the17:35 departure time. The first thing we noticed was an alarming amount of cancelled trains on the illuminated departures board. We asked for a status and were told that “at the moment the Jaisalmer train is still running but it may be cancelled”. It seemed there had been some protest in the countryside that was affecting the trains. 17:35 and no train; it was definitely cancelled. Once again running the gauntlet of pestilent taxi-drivers, we made it to the pre-paid booth for a tuk-tuk ride to New Delhi Station, where we re-booked for Monday as the Sunday train was already full.
The reason for the cancellation was a protest in the state of Haryana over that great Indian blight; the caste system. The caste system is basically a pyramidal hierarchy going back hundreds of years that assigns folk to a caste based on their profession. The Brahmins are the highest caste consisting of the priests and holy men. Below this are the warrior castes, then farmer / merchant / tradesmen castes and so on. It is a straightjacket system; once assigned, you are what you are unless you break the rules and demotion follows. At the very bottom of the pile are those without caste; the ‘Dalits’ or untouchables, those whose duty is to perform all the menial or filthy tasks like street cleaning, farm labouring, pig farming (pigs are deemed unclean), and tanning. Dalits cannot use the same water supply as everyone else and were forbidden to even enter the residential areas of the upper castes. They were denied access to temples, forbidden to read religious books and generally kept illiterate.
Since independence, successive governments have tried to recognise all folk as equals but it is obvious that the caste system is still deep-rooted in Indian society today. One method employed to address the inequality has been the introduction of ‘quotas’ in the workplace such that the each caste is fairly represented, which of course this just highlights exactly where you belong in this system. While this has opened up many opportunities to the low castes it has now disadvantaged the middle and upper castes, as there are fewer places in the quota system for those higher up the food chain. The Jats in Haryana, a state that envelops Delhi to the North, South and West, belong to a mid-level farming caste making up over a quarter of the population in that state with a majority in the state assembly. In protest these Jats blocked roads, burned vehicles, shut the rail network (hence our train was cancelled) and disrupted the water supply to the capital. Fifteen people were killed as the army moved in to quell the disturbances. Of course this was all great cover for the usual scumbags to loot with reports of Punjabi businesses targeted for electronic goods and fashion clothing.
The Sunday train to Jaisalmer was cancelled. On Monday the government conceded defeat, announced a revision of the quotas and the protests ceased. Online, it looked like our train was OK. At the station, the departures board looked good but then we were told the train might be cancelled. We sought the stationmaster and were told it was definitely cancelled but it might still go. At 17:15 the departures board finally declared it was indeed cancelled. We confirmed this with the stationmaster before heading back to New Delhi to sort out a refund and a search for a bus as we’d had it with trains. You can imagine our horror when New Delhi told us that a refund might be impossible as the train had actually left and technically we were a ‘no-show’! “You see sir,” explained the ticket clerk, “when you were there, the train was indeed cancelled but then it was decided to ‘un-cancel’ the train, so it did indeed leave for Jaisalmer!” After all the crap and hassle dished to us in Delhi this was the final straw and we both exploded in a spectacular stereophonic outburst on the inefficiencies of the Indian rail system and the dubious parentage of all who sail in her. Our rants and railings (if you’ll pardon the pun) got us into the office of the high–ranking station manager, top dog in New Delhi. “This is India,” he explained, “these things happen.” In his plush office, he listened sympathetically to our plea, made a few phone calls and arranged for us to get on a train that very evening to Jodhpur, from where we could take a 5-hour bus trip to Jaisalmer. It was a lifeline eagerly grasped as we’d had more than our fill of Delhi and just wanted to be back where we belonged; out on the road with our bikes.
The sleeper-car was half empty as we finally pulled out of Delhi at 9pm that evening. Presumably the empty bunks belonged to irate passengers who were only just learning that their train had in fact been ‘un-cancelled’…
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Delhi