Ever since I came to India I’ve been traveling hard trying to see as much as I can in a limited amount of time. I’ve slept on a train or bus nearly half the nights I’ve been in this country. Doing things on the fly last minute and somehow working out has been my calling card here and my recent trip from Varanasi to New Jalpaiguri (NJP) fits the mold perfectly.
Originally I planned to spend just one night in Varanasi, but upon arriving, I realized there was quite a lot to do. Maybe I’d reward myself with two nights sleep in a real bed for a change. I canceled my train ticket and bought a new one for the following evening.
My time in Varanasi was great, but on my final day, I logged on to the India Rail website and found out that I never made it off the waitlist. In fact, I was only in third place when the final chart was prepared! This meant I wasn’t going to NJP unless I figured out another way because my ticket had been canceled and everything else was booked. After some research, I learned quite a lot about waitlisted ticket train travel in India, you can read my guide here. I found out that the only way I was going to get on my train was if I managed to score an unreserved ticket at the train station prior to departure.
To get an unreserved ticket, I had to get to the station early and hope I could still buy one. Before heading out, I double checked the train delay online and found out that my original train was going to be delayed by nearly three hours! This original train was also much slower than others heading for NJP because it stopped more frequently. However because I no longer had a ticket, I could consider other options at the train station and hope to get on an earlier or faster train. I looked up the delays for other trains and found out that express train too was delayed by nearly two hours arriving at 8pm. That meant if I left right away, I could possibly make it to the station, catch the earlier train, and make it to NJP in the morning. If not, there were later trains to fall back on.
When this plan clicked in my head, I instantly packed my bag and ran out the door to grab a rickshaw to get to Varanasi bus stand where I took a shared jeep to Mughal Sarai train station nearly an hour from Varanasi. Read my guide on how to get between Varanasi and Mughal Sarai train station.
Once I arrived at Mughal Sarai, I went to the unreserved counter with both the early and late train numbers written on a piece of paper. I asked the ticket agent if I could please get on the earlier train, and he sold me a ticket at only 210 rupees. Unfortunately unreserved seating is the worst of the worst. It means wooden benches and fighting for your seat since more people will be in the cart than seats available. Obviously not an ideal situation for overnight train travel, but I knew I’d figure something out.
I got to the train platform literally maybe five minutes before it left (this was a ramshackle last minute play) and I found the conductor on the platform. I asked him if it was possible to upgrade to any of the AC compartments, and he told me they were all full. However he said if I wanted to travel in Sleeper Class, there was a spot available. He gave me the seat number and off I went just a couple minutes before the train left.
The non-ac Sleeper Class is how the majority of Indians travel. Windows are open to the elements and no bed sheets are provided. While it’s not exactly the cleanest of the compartments, it’s an experience worth having. Traveling in Sleeper Class is the true India experience. You’re going to get dirty, nobody will speak English, but there is nothing like the proud accomplishment of traveling like the Indians do and living to tell the tale.
When I got to my seat, I was assigned a lower berth. I had to share the seat a little while with an Indian family until they started to get tired and set up their beds for the evening. When it was time for bed, I set my backpack up at one end of the berth. I was able to use my fleece jacket and backpack as a sort of pillow and pretty much went to sleep instantly.
I don’t want this to discourage anyone from Sleeper Class travel in India because it won’t always be like this, but here is the really bad part: around 11pm, I woke up quite itchy. Half asleep I kept itching thinking it would go away soon. It didn’t and I checked my body for welts because I thought it might have been mosquitos from the open windows. No welts so it must have been something else… Yikes. Luckily the berth above me was open and I moved my stuff up and went back to sleep without problems. Avoid the bottom berths if you can since this is where people usually sit, and they are the dirtiest.
The next morning I woke up at sunrise and still had a few hours before reaching NJP. As I say in my India Train Travel Tips article, the best part of traveling is when the chai man comes around in the morning. There is nothing like waking up to a cup of hot chai on the rails. Around 10am, we finally arrived in NJP and I was able to easily find a shared jeep for the journey to Darjeeling, my final destination.
Looking back, everything on this trip just fell in place for me. I made it to the train platform minutes before the train left. I was able to get on a faster train because I knew it would be late and I could intercept it. I got upgraded to Sleeper Class and didn’t even have to pay for it. And I easily made it to Darjeeling without a fuss. This sort of ramshackle, last minute, insane traveling is exhausting, but I can never get enough of it. I love that feeling of just running into a new country head first and figuring it all out on the fly. Even though the AC compartment would have been nicer, looking back, I wouldn’t trade it for the journey I just had.