Train travel in India is wonderful; in fact I’d go so far to say that it is one of lifes great adventures and if you have the means, time and inclination you should travel through India on it’s legendary Indian railway.
But buying train tickets in Old Delhi is utter lunacy!
Anna and I decide it is time to leave the freezing chaos of Old Delhi and make the 500 mile trip to Varanasi in Utter Pradesh – the most holiest place in India – by train. I mean everyone knows train travel in India is amazing, right?
Train Travel in India – easier than you think?
Simple enough; visit Old Delhi train station, buy tickets, kick back for a few days then jump on the Indian railway. Ha! We wish…
I visit the travel agent –
“I would like 2 seats in 1st class to Varanasi please leaving sometime this week.”
“Sorry, sold out – only waiting list available”
“Fine, how long is the waiting list?”
“139 people waiting”
The only option is to visit Old Delhi train station – seems simple enough
Turn up at Old Delhi’s main train station’s ticket office, pay a bit more (about double to what the locals pay) and you can jump the queue.
We arrive at the station but before we reach the ticket office one of the guards blocks our way and asks for our tickets. I say “No, we are coming here to buy tickets”.
He kindly informs us the ticket office is being renovated and is closed; we must go to the other official tourist office in town instead – he even points it out for us in our guidebook. He calls over a complimentary car to take us (alarm bell number 1).
The Indian train-ticket buying goose chase begins…
The driver drops us off at a nondescript location and points out the official tourist office – this is where you get your tickets for train travel in India.
I graciously thank him for all his help and taking Anna by the hand leave the vehicle. What I’ve forgotten to mention is for the entire duration of the drive Anna has been vocalising (read: throwing a massive strop) her cynicism of the complimentary car and not really having any faith in the generosity of humanity.
As least patronizing as possible I inform Anna that her comments are not good for my karma and quickly turn my head away as pompously as I can (which seems to infuriate her even more).
Standing outside the official tourist office I suddenly notice a huge smile appear on Anna’s face. Now I’m worried.
Anna quietly looks up at the sign – Welcome to the Offal Tourist Office. Oh, you don’t spell official like that do you..(alarm bell number 2).
We don’t enter the offal tourist office; and instead turn to walk away, upon doing so a couple of touts open the doors and ask us if we want to buy train tickets. I politely communicate that no way in hell am I interested in buying train tickets from the offal ticket office, but thank you anyway. They don’t really take no for an answer and continue their sales pitch.
We walk. They follow.
We walk faster, down a side street. They follow, faster, down the side street.
We power-walk, which turns into a light jog. They follow, lightly jogging.
While lightly jogging I can’t shake the theme tune to Benny Hill out of my head, the only interruption to the 1970’s music is the odd shout coming from the two most dedicated salespeople I have ever met; “best price for you my friend!”, “where you go?”, “we have tickets to everywhere!”. Eventually we dive into a shop and quietly peer through the shop window until we see the pair of them run past and feel a sense of relief wash over us.
It is, in a word, mental.
For those that are unaware we have become unwitting participants in a train-ticket buying game we haven’t played before – the general objective is thus:
Indian touts objective: to try, under every imaginable way to sell you train tickets from their private ticket office – there are hundreds – everywhere.
Tourist objective: to buy the proper train tickets from the proper ticket office and actually arrive in the destination of your choice.
It is a game of cat & mouse, cunning plans, running, ducking, using special cheats and one get out of jail free card.
For the entire day we played.
I feel this needs emphasizing; when I say ‘entire day’ I am talking hours; literally the entire day looking for the bloody ‘official tourist office’. Tuk tuk drivers informing you that you don’t want the official tourist office and head straight to their cousins, brothers, uncles ticket office even though the instruction is the official one.
One thing you learn when travelling is no matter what country you are in – when it comes to buying tickets for travel – get them from the most official place you can find.
We eventually stumble, out of pure chance, into the genuine one and only, OFFICIAL TOURIST OFFICE (I check the spelling twice before entering). The staff are wonderful, they politely inform us they don’t sell tickets, but the main train station does. “You mean the main train station that we started at this morning?It isn’t being renovated?”
Oh how we laughed….
The real tourist office however is a true ally to the tourist, they warned us of the treacherous path we must tread, of the obstacles we would face and that only if we remained true and strong would we succeed in our quest to buy train tickets.. May the force be with you, nanoo-nanoo and all of that..
We arrived back at the main station panting and verging on despair, but this small geographic victory was enough to lift our spirits and put us back in the game.
Across a barren expanse of tarmac about half the size of a football pitch we can see the stairs that our gaming partner (the real tourist office) informed us we must climb. At the top you are rewarded with the grand prize of an exceptionally helpful desk clerk and train tickets to anywhere money can buy.
At the final stage of our competition; the final leg is the toughest. Blocking your way to the entrance are a dozen touts; each a solitary tiger pacing around their territory waiting for you; their prey, to enter the game. We stand at the edge, knowing that once our flipflop hits the tarmac of the station the final stage of the competition will begin instantly.
We breath heavy; eyeing them up; they look back waiting for the chase to begin, the adrenaline is building – we bolt for it!
We walk fast and with purpose towards the entrance of the station – keeping our eyes firmly on the stairs – “WHERE ARE YOUR TICKETS!!?”
We know his game, we barge pass, he chases, we run, we get to the stairs – 3 more – all pointing in different directions and shouting “THE TICKET OFFICE IS OVER THERE!!”, I run, slide under them clearing the path for Anna, she runs and jumps over them…just 10 meters away – we can see the door! Two more dive in front shouting “the office is closed!” waving their hands to confuse us, we slip pass and run into the official doorway, sliding in on our knees with our hands raised in the air we throw our heads back to the roar of applause and standing ovation from an international crowd of tourists and local ticket clerks! The home crowd go wild! We all share a split second of empathy – we the chosen few that have won the game that day.
We modestly take our bows, get in queue and wallow in our success and deserved prize of two 1st class tickets to Varanasi leaving the next day.
Anna Theo – 1
Touts – 0
But still bloody cold.
PS. the image on this post is of the mita-paan that I mentioned in my post about arriving in Delhi for the first time..