At 5.30 in the morning we were woken up by some evil person going around the hotel hammering on all the doors and yelling something indecipherable. This was apparently the call for the early train. We stayed in bed. Still tired from the previous day we were unaware that the early train was the only train to depart daily from Raxaul. All this we were duly informed while eating a leisurely breakfast in the restaurant a few hours later. Over the road at the railway station we found that the ticket office didn’t open until four or five o’clock-ish, so we wandered the filthy streets of the bazaar until we came across a bank that changed traveller’s cheques. Restocked with Indian Rupees we returned to the Tourist Lodge where we attempted to order food – fried rice and vegetables. But they had no rice. We tried for fried eggs and toast. But they had no toast. We asked for chappatis instead of toast and waited… and waited… but nothing appeared, so we gave up and left. At four o’clock we returned to the station, psychologically bracing ourselves for the usual hassle, but the reservations clerk turned out to be extremely efficient and friendly. Within 15 minutes he had sorted us out with tickets and sleeper reservations for the Lucknow train for the following day. Our plan was to travel by rail the 500 miles or so west to Ambala and then turn north into the hills of Himachal Pradesh to visit the Kulu Valley and Manali via Simla. Knowing that we would be on the move again lifted us out of our Raxaul-induced negativity. We returned to the hotel, amazingly somehow managed to get food in the restaurant, packed our bags and had an early night.
We both struggled to sleep due to the singing and shouting of drunken Indians, doors banging, crying babies and the rats scuttling around the floor of our room. Just as things had quietened down and I had drifted into sleep there was a thunderous kicking on the door accompanied by a voice yelling, “Hello, hello, five o’clock, five o’clock”. Neither of us moved. Bang, bang, bang, “Six o‘clock, six o’clock”. We hurriedly packed our bits and pieces and just had time for a bowl of sweet, tepid water with a few porridge oats floating in it and a cup of chai before rushing across to the station. We had no problem working out which train to get on. There was only one. We found our bunks and, as we sat waiting to leave, a railway policeman in khaki uniform and black beret approached us and asked to see our tickets. Seemingly satisfied, I thought that he would move on but he then began to rifle through Janette’s bag, but she wasn’t having any of it and snatched it away from him. He attempted to retrieve it, mumbling something about checking for drugs and Janette screamed, “Get the fuck away from me”, at the top of her voice. This obviously shocked him as much as it did me. He smiled sheepishly and disappeared down the carriage. By now the engine had a full head of steam and a few minutes later, with a loud blast on the whistle, we chugged slowly out of the station only 15 minutes late.
This near-punctuality was not to last. An hour and a half later we pulled into Segauli where our carriage was disconnected and left standing at the station while the rest of the train carried on down the track. By talking to other stranded passengers we discovered that the Railway Controllers had taken industrial action and the whole rail network was in a state of confusion. Segauli was not exactly a hub of activity. We had a meal at a stall in the bazaar adjacent to the station and then dozed in the sunshine listening to the birds and the distant sound of Hindi pop music from a distorted radio. A long seven hours later we heard the far distant chuffing of the engine that was coming to rescue us, slowly approaching from the south. Bless Indian Railways for not forgetting us!
On the four-hour journey to Muzaffarpur we got to know the other passengers in our section of the carriage. There were two short, stocky Nepalese guys with permanent smiles on their faces who were headed for Calcutta via Delhi and a dapper Sikh gentleman called Trilok Singh who was returning to his home and family in Kashmir, (the most beautiful place in India, he told us). At Muzaffarpur Station the engine was disconnected and we were informed that it would be another hour before the train left so I headed off to look for food, not knowing how long it might be before we would have another opportunity to eat. From a mobile stall on one of the other platforms I managed to buy a selection of instant street food and set off back to the train with everything neatly wrapped in banana leaves. I couldn’t believe it when I walked on to the platform and found that the carriages were no longer there. My heart sank. I felt sure that the train must have gone without me. Was this really the platform that the train had pulled into? What if Janette was already on her way to Lucknow? When was the next train? Would I ever see her again? I could feel the onset of panic. I rushed from one platform to the next whilst trying to calm myself down by stuffing food into my mouth. By the time I found our carriage, which had been shunted to a different platform, I had consumed all the food. Janette appeared totally unconcerned by the fact that I had been running around in total meltdown but pretty pissed off that I hadn’t brought her anything to eat. With more than a little trepidation I ventured out into the station once more. When I returned the carriage was still there, Janette was fed and we still waited another hour before departing.
The padded bunks we slept on were quite comfortable and, apart from the return of my fever symptoms, which included lying the entire night in a sweat-soaked sleeping bag, I didn’t sleep too badly. I awoke early and washed myself down in the carriage toilet. The train, which originally was due to arrive in Lucknow at 9.00am, (according to the timetable at Raxaul Station) and then the revised time of 11.00am, (according to a clerk in the Assistant Station Master’s Office at Muzaffarpur Station) chugged unhurriedly across Uttar Pradesh. The steel wheels would screech to a halt every few miles for no apparent reason and the day passed slowly by. We pulled into a tiny country station called Colonel Ganj, where Janette and I climbed down onto the sun-baked platform to stretch our legs and to and to investigate the possibility of obtaining chai or food. A small group of men gathered to look at us in that passive, inquisitive way, that would be considered rude in the West, but is quite normal and acceptable in India. The group expanded into a crowd, who’s wide, dark eyes followed our every move to the point where we felt that we were unintentionally putting on some kind of show for these guys. People were appearing out of nowhere as the word spread that an odd-looking white couple was walking up and down the station. Within a matter of minutes there were probably forty people watching and discussing us. Under such intense scrutiny we began to feel very uncomfortable and, as there didn’t appear to be any food or drink to be had, we beat a cowardly retreat back into the train and hid.
Not arriving in Lucknow until 4.30pm had caused Mr Trilok Singh and ourselves to miss the connecting train to Ambala, which had, somewhat incredulously I thought, departed on time. Trusting that he knew what he was doing we followed our new Sikh friend to the Northern Line section of the station where he made extensive enquiries in high-speed Hindi. He ascertained that if we caught the 8.20pm to Laksha, we could then connect to the Saharanpur train, once at Saharanpur we should then be able to get another train to Ambala. He was desperate to get to Kashmir by any means available in order to be there by the 10th December to join his family in celebrating his son’s seventh birthday. With our tickets purchased, and a little time to spare, we made our way to the station restaurant for a meal and bumped into the two Nepalese guys again. As our departure time drew near we said our goodbyes and left them sitting there, still smiling serenely amidst the madness.
As we were now travelling Unreserved 3rd Class, Trilok Singh hired a red-shirted, beedie-smoking coolie to carry his bed-roll and fight his way into the carriage to find seats for us. It was a good move, as the train arrived already pretty full and, before it had even stopped, hundreds of people rushed for the doors. The coolie, with practised ease, approached the carriage with the bed-roll on his head, pushed it through an open window and climbed in behind it. Trilok and Janette followed him while I fought my way in via the door. Once in the carriage he commandeered three seats and guarded them until we had made our way through the mass of bodies and were able to sit down. The coolie, his job done, then climbed back out through the window and on to the platform.
Travelling Unreserved 3rd Class on Indian Railways in the early 1970s was perhaps the closest that a western traveller could get to total immersion in the ‘real’ India. There, sitting on those bum-achingly, hard wooden benches for hour after hour. Packed in, body to body with fellow travellers from all walks of life, castes and religion, there was no hiding place. Amongst the people we conversed with through the long night were an interesting Moslem botany lecturer and a crazed Hindu fundamentalist who believed that, although countries like the USA believed that they were world-leaders, it was actually India that held this position and before long the world would realise this fact. In the early hours of the morning, when we were at most tired and uncomfortable, we were kept awake by a soppy young man in his early twenties who, after asking all the usual banal questions regarding where we came from, where we had been and was this my wife, then continued to ramble on about all his favourite Hollywood films. Just as I thought he was going to shut up he pulled out a dog-eared movie magazine and insisted that we look at all the pictures of Bollywood stars. It was a long night and the relief felt on arriving in Laksha at 9.00am was short-lived as we immediately climbed aboard the train waiting to depart for Saharanpur. Thankfully this was only a short journey and by lunchtime we were sitting in a filthy, fly-blown restaurant outside Saharanpur Station eating dahl and rice with our fingers as we waited for the next train. The one noteworthy thing about Saharanpur was the number of beggars with deformed hands and missing limbs who congregated around the station area, wailing at and pleading with the passers-by… an almost medieval scene.
It was an all-out physical fight to get on to the Ambala train. We were lucky in that the three of us managed to cram ourselves into the same carriage but there was no way we were going to find any seats. We squatted on our bags in an alcove, with Janette sitting near the toilet. Every few minutes someone would climb over her and with each opening of the door the stench of excrement would waft into the carriage. We reached Ambala three hours later and there we said our goodbyes to Trilok Singh. It was sad to see him go. He had been a good travelling companion being always helpful and incredibly good-humoured. Without him it would have taken us days to get this far across the country. He was hoping to travel on to Ludhiana and then to Jammu and finally Srinagar. He scribbled his address on a scrap of paper and said that his home would always be open to us and, if we were ever to visit Kashmir, we must stay with him and his family.
At the bus station we made enquiries about getting to Simla and were told that if we caught the bus to Kalkha we would be able to get another bus to Simla otherwise we would have to stay overnight in Ambala. Exhausted though we were, we seemed to be caught up in the momentum of travelling and decided to keep moving. We sat eating greasy parathas and drinking chai until the wreck of a bus arrived and then, to our surprise, as there didn’t appear to be many people waiting, there was a mad rush of bodies. We hurriedly joined them and Janette was carried through the open door by the flow of people while I struggled to make any headway at all. Every inch of the bus was jammed full, and there were still five of us trying desperately to get on. Watching the proceedings were two policemen who stepped forward and began to physically push us on board, squeezing the five of us in and quickly closing the door behind us so that we couldn’t pop back out. Just as we were about to leave another bus backed into the front of ours and our driver leaped out screaming at the top of his lungs, then climbed back into the driving seat and took off at a bad-tempered, manic high-speed. I couldn’t see Janette and she couldn’t see me but, although I knew that she was somewhere inside the bus, she had no idea whether I had made it or not. Eventually after the bus had made a few stops, and it was a little less of a crush, we saw each other. She had managed to get a seat while I spent the whole journey being thrown around the bus as the angry driver pushed his wreck of a vehicle up into the hills. Sometime after dark we were dropped off in Kalkha. By now we were too tired to go any further and decided to stay the night and catch the morning bus for the 95 kilometre drive to Simla.
Checking into what appeared to be the only hotel in town we climbed the stairs to our first floor room. Hoping to wash for the first time in two days in the ‘attached bathroom’, I opened the door to find a completely empty room with no tap or toilet, simply a hole in the floor. After checking out the rest of the building I could find no communal bathroom or toilet so I returned to our ‘attached bathroom’ and took a pee into the hole which trickled into a section of guttering outside and then down a drainpipe to the street below. Unwashed but ravenously hungry we went out and found a small restaurant where we absolutely stuffed ourselves with a selection of vegetable dishes, rice and chappatis. Leaving the restaurant we strolled down the main street where a skinny, teenage Sikh attached himself to us and insisted that he buy us chai and that we smoke his cigarettes as, ‘it is my duty to look after you as guests in my country’. Not wishing to offend him, we agreed to take a short walk out of town so that he could point out some ‘beautiful places’, for example: the radar station, (a red flashing light somewhere in the distance), the river (a muddy ditch), and an assortment of other invisible sites of no particular interest, the moonless night being virtually pitch dark. At some point we were joined by his friend, who he introduced as Mr Lal, who brought a piece of charas. Unfortunately by this time we had run out of cigarettes so Mr Lal disappeared into the night only to return ten minutes later in a car with two more young men. In order to smoke the dope we all crowded into a large section of concrete drainpipe, which was waiting to be laid, of which there was a collection in the middle of a field. So this was what teenagers did for kicks in Kalkha. We all got very stoned except for the Sikh kid, who was making a fool of himself by obviously pretending to smoke the joints. His motive for attaching himself to us became clear when he complained that his hands were cold and wanted to warm them on Janette. Then he leaned towards her and clumsily attempted to kiss her so I intervened, pushing him back and telling him that you can’t just do things like that. It had been a long day and we’d had enough of sitting in a drainpipe with a bunch of strange hill-kiddies. So we split, refusing a lift in the car, and walked back into town. On climbing the stairs to our hotel room I became aware that the place we were staying in was more than a simple hotel. Earlier it had been very quiet, but now the unmistakable sound of couples indulging in sexual activity emanated from the rooms. On the landing, right outside our door, were a couple rolling around on a charpoy, covered in a coarse brown blanket. Next to the charpoy was a pair of boots and, hanging on a hook on the wall, an army uniform. I had a fleeting recollection of the psycho-Sikh kiddie mentioning something about a nearby army camp. We were undoubtedly staying in the local brothel.
Despite the nocturnal comings and goings we both had a good nights sleep and were up early for a fried-eggs and chappati breakfast before the bus to Simla arrived. Entering the Shivalik foothills, the road commenced to climb, winding around the hills and passing through spectacular scenery. Frequently we would find ourselves looking down on the narrow-gauge railway track that took a similar route and decided that it would be fun to return to the plains on the train. We drove through Kasanti and Solon and, in the unheated local bus, began to feel increasingly chilled. By the time we had climbed to 2076 metres above sea-level and reached Simla in the early afternoon, our teeth were chattering. We alighted into the slush of the previous night’s melting snow and discovered that there would be no more buses to Kulu until the following morning. There were only two departures per day, at 5am and 8am. At the Tourist Office an efficient young man, with his head wrapped in a tartan scarf, directed us to the Government Holiday Home, where we moved into a fully-furnished room with soft beds but, unfortunately, no heating. The manager/receptionist was less than welcoming and we were obviously a major inconvenience. Although there was a water-heater in the bathroom (neither of us had washed since leaving Raxaul), he was adamant that there was no hot water. On asking if we could have lunch, he replied that we should have ordered it at breakfast. So we ordered dinner, put on an extra layer of clothing and went out for a stroll. This was our first proper look at the town and the way that the buildings clung to the side of the steep hillside was an amazing sight. Slip-sliding in the slush, we made our way slowly upwards watched from the rooftops by groups of monkeys, but not the nice, furry, forest monkeys that you see on wildlife documentaries, these were urban-scavenging-roof-rat-street-gang monkeys with yellow fangs and a bad attitude. We followed the winding narrow streets from the lowest bazaar right up to the Mall. The Mall Road ran along the ridge of the hill and, the buildings having been originally built by the British during the days of the Raj, looked strangely incongruous. It was if Disney had constructed the Mall as a heritage centre for the entertainment of the groups of middle-class Indians in Western dress, who were promenading and conversing with each other in loud, sing-song English. There were two churches, a library/museum and, the wonderfully named, Gaiety Theatre, supposedly one of the oldest theatres in the world (but at that time in use as a cinema). As the Mall descended back into the, more typically Indian backstreets, it was lined with glass-fronted tea-shops and bakeries selling chocolate cake and macaroons. With the temperature dropping rapidly we returned to the happy Holiday Home and awaited dinner. I noticed that behind the hotel were a collection of stoves and, as there was a fireplace in our room, I asked the manager if we could have the use of one. But of course we couldn’t (filthy unwelcome hippies that we were). A large coal-burning stove heated the dining room, so after our meal we sat and warmed ourselves for an hour or two, happy in the knowledge that this was doubtless pissing-off the manager. On returning to our freezing room we braved the icy night air on the verandha for just long enough to appreciate the shimmering wall of lights that was Simla after dark – a magical sight! We crawled into our sleeping bags wearing every article of clothing we could find and didn’t wake up until 7.10am.