Overland Travel In India – An Odyssey By Bus And Train

“Take me to the station and put me on a train.
I’ve got no expectations to pass through here again.”
– Rolling Stones
Slow Travel, Whether You Like It Or Not

Of the two ways to get overland from Khajuraho to Varanasi, neither is very convenient. So, we opt for both. Overland travel in India is usually pretty slow travel, whether you like it or not. The train doesn’t actually go from Khajuraho, but from the “nearby” town of Mahoba. The bus to Mahoba leaves, like most others, when full. Usually, this is just before dusk – the most dangerous time to be on the road – allowing an opportunity to witness Indian driving habits, both during the day and at night.

Cows, which are everywhere, are obstacles to be avoided at all costs. Roads are about a car-width wide, thereby requiring oncoming vehicles to straddle the shoulders when they meet. The (mis)use of headlights and high-beams is a great source of amusement – like games of chance. In an attempt, apparently, to conserve the vehicle’s battery and headlamps, lights are generally extinguished.

A detail of one of the Kama Sutra inspired temples in Khajuraho, India

A detail of one of the Kama Sutra inspired temples in Khajuraho

Only when an oncoming vehicle is seen approaching are the headlights turned on, and the high beams repeatedly flicked on and off. Once each driver has adequately acknowledged the other, the use of high-beams is discontinued until a moment before the two vehicles pass each other. They are turned on just in time to blind the other driver, as he straddles the shoulder, and avoids cows, which are everywhere.

Overland Travel in India

After stopping to let someone either on or off every 100 meters, the bus finally arrives in Mahoba. The driver of a horse-drawn cart is willing to take us to the train station. We don’t think to examine the condition of his horse, but the cart looks fine. With four packs and four adults, though, it is unbalanced and the horse is effectively lifted off the ground. We voice our concern for the stumbling, un-shod animal and our displeasure in its treatment. The driver assures us that everything is okay, but if someone were to come up front – preferably a female – it would be better for balance. Alex goes instead, as he is the heaviest.

The Window Seat view of the countryside near Khajuraho, India

The Window Seat view of the countryside near Khajuraho, India

Mahoba – surely a translation of some ancient Hindi dialect for “the middle of nowhere” – is in the middle of the line, and the train to Varanasi passes through in the middle of the night. Half an hour prior to its arrival and departure, tickets are released on a first-come first-sold basis. As foreigners traveling by such unusual means, we are invited to use the first-class waiting room instead of camping on the platform. And, an hour before the train’s scheduled arrival, we position ourselves in proximity to the ticket window.

Third-class sleepers are the cheapest form of overland travel in India, and since many people want to get on this one, competition is fierce. With our passports firmly clenched in our fists and our elbows protruding defensively in an effort to avert the many queue-jumpers, the ticket widow opens and we secure berths. The cars are divided into open-ended compartments with triple-bunks on each side. As no compartments with four empty berths are available, we must settle for a 3-1 split between two compartments.

One Foot On The Platform, The Other On The Train

We eagerly wait for the train to pull into the station, and grudgingly wait for it to pull out. Those embarking squeeze through a tide of antagonists flowing off the train car and must do so quickly, or risk being left on the platform. It is a fairly typical scene. A large backpack can be used to part a sea of on-comers, or act as an anchor being pulled with them.

Farmers reap their harvest as trains whiz by the fields in Central India

Farmers reap their harvest as trains whiz by the fields in Central India

We all make it aboard. A maze of passengers, curious and energized by our odd presence, and a minefield of their sundries, must be navigated to reach our berths. Once we do, we evict the three people lodging in each one.

We decide one couple will occupy the top berth and the other the bottom. The packs are secured to the middle one, and the solitary berth abandoned. On the top bunk, we are closest to the fan and the light. The light, which for security reasons remains on all night, attracts an array of flying insects. The fan, whose turbulence might ordinarily disperse them, mockingly operates only during the hotter daylight hours.

Rowboats ply the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

Rowboats ply the Ganges River in Varanasi

Finally, after a long night of sporadic sleep, we arrive in Varanasi, where it is auspicious – or rather less inauspicious – to give alms to the “hirja” (transvestites) who hop from train to train. There are also the cleaners who, after sweeping the trash that has collected in the train car, demand payment. Afterwards, we visit the ticket office to purchase onward fares, where our companions discover their passports have been picked from their pockets. A fitting end to a frustrating journey.


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