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The Last Train

21 October 2015

With plans in place to modernise India’s railway, the classic journey through the subcontinent could soon be a thing of the past.

Calcutta, midday. The yellow Hindustan Ambassador trundles forward a few metres, stops, forces its way into the next lane and stops. No air-conditioning in these big old taxis. The windows are wound all the way down but the air that fills the cab is humid, heavy with fumes, and carries prowling mosquitos.

The taxi driver chews paan open-mouthed, the stimulant's juices leaving dark red stains on his lips and teeth. This young Bengali scowls at the traffic, rages about the stubborn jam of cars, trucks, motorbikes, and the barefooted man pulling a rickshaw full of scrap metal.

This journey should've taken 20 minutes. We've been on the road an hour. Police pull us over to check the driver's documents, so it takes another half an hour to get to where we're going ‚ the biggest, busiest railway station in all India, a huge 100-year-old red brick fortress known simply as Howrah.

For the author Paul Theroux, trains are the only decent way to travel. It is, as he wrote in his mast famous work, The Great Railway Bazaar, “a far cry from the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger”. With this quote in my head, I pay the taxi driver, shake loose my passenger's paralysis, and sprint into the station.

Missing a train in India is serous business and Howrah is an unforgiving place for people in a hurry. Every last Indian is here, a billion of them, I'm sure of it, each carrying every last one of their possessions. There's no seat not sat on, no wall that isn't being leaned against, scarcely an inch of floor-space free from bags, cases, beat-up old trunks, cardboard boxes reinforced with sticky tape – by people themselves, lying down on blankets they've spread out wherever they could find room.

The station holds within its walls, beneath its high ceilings, India's best and worst traits: wallers, wheeler-dealers and pickpockets, the showy rich, the dignified poor, those who stare without shame and those who are quick with a smile, bureaucracy, hypocrisy, lunacy, barefoot beggars shaking a cup at well-heeled businessman, good food, weird food, dangerous food ‚ and for me, the start of another long train ride across the most fascinating, frustrating country in world.

I caught my train, just. The Shatabdi Express, its average speed a leisurely 58km/h eased out of Howrah station. I stretched out in my seat, in an air-conditioned bogie (carriage), with all of India to watch through the window, and felt content to have found some calm among the chaos of this country.

There are plans to modernise India's railway. So with Theroux's book under my arm, knowing that the kind of trip he took may soon be a thing of the past, I decided to spend six months touring the length and breadth of it, guided by one self-imposed rule: I would travel only by train. "If a train is large and comfortable," he wrote, "you don't even need a destination; a corner seat is enough, and you can be one of those travellers who stay in motion, straddling the tracks, and never arrive or feel they ought to."

I left home in January with one bag and a one-way ticket to Delhi, nothing more. Almost everything I knew about train travel in India came from Theroux's book ‚ which he published in 1975. The American spent four months travelling through Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. I intended to spend six months solely in India. The author occasionally flew and took boats between countries. But I wouldn't leave the subcontinent until my visa ran out, so I would definitely travel only by train.

In Delhi I couldn't get a train. At least, not to anywhere I wanted to go. I ended up spending a week in what was my least favourite city in India. But it was difficult to be bored in the area I was staying in, the notorious Paharganj.

One night, walking along the street looking for a bar, a man emerged from the shadows. "Hello, sir," he said. I returned his hello but didn't stop. "How are you? Your country? Where you go? You want to buy a flute?" The hawker tried tirelessly to sell this flute, pursued me with the kind of dogged urgency that suggested I played the flute, was in the market for a new flute, and had showed keen interest in buying his particular flute. That's Paharganj. The maddest street in one of the maddest cities in the world.

A whirlwind of noise and colour, smells and shouts. Where four, five lanes of traffic drive up and down a road wide enough for one. Where packs of stray dogs and herds of prying cows roam. Where a derelict mosque has reopened as an electrical goods shop. Where everyone wants to sell you something, and if they don't have what you want to buy, then they'll find someone who does and pocket a commission for bringing you to them. Every time I stepped out of my hotel it was that way – like I was the first tourist in town and last potential buyer on earth.

Manish worked on the travel desk in my hotel. He was unwilling to discuss so much as the weather without first sitting me down and sending out into the street for tea from his waller friend. I told him about my trouble buying train tickets. Like his compatriots outside, he refused to accept this. But several days and countless cups of absurdly sweet chai later, we were no further forward. So I arranged with Manish to hire a car and a driver, and to visit by road all the places in Rajasthan I intended to visit by rail.

In Udaipur, the lake city known as the Venice Of The East, I boarded my first proper Indian train – a sleeper travelling the 1,000km to Mumbai. "To understand the real India," Theroux wrote, "the Indians say, you must go to the villages. But that is not strictly true, because the Indians have carried their villages to the railway stations."

These words were illustrated perfectly by the sight of Udaipur City after dark. This little four-platform station looked like the set of an apocalypse movie, with the whole town waiting to be evacuated on a train that would never come. There were more people sleeping on the floor here than at Howrah, a station five times its size, giving the impression the evacuees had been waiting not hours, but days.

Indians and tourists gave me warnings about train travel. “The trains are delayed by days,” they said. “The trains are dirty. The trains are unsafe.” My train chugged to a stop in front of me and I boarded the air-conditioned, two-tier class of bogie known as AC2. “Don't accept food or drinks from strangers,” they said. “Don't show your ticket to anyone but the inspector. Don't leave your bags unattended.” I boarded. The bogie was open-plan, with berths on one side of the aisle arranged widthways in bays of four, and longways in bays of two on the other side of the aisle.

Three older ladies from Mumbai joined me in my berth, followed by a small army of porters carrying their luggage. One of the ladies, the leader, asked in perfected English: "From which country do you come?" My answer, England, was satisfactory. She smiled and said, "Nice country." From this point on I was spoken to and fussed over as if I were travelling with my grandmother, mother and aunty.

Before we'd even left the station, I'd accepted crisps and water from them, shown them my ticket, and left them to mind my luggage while I wandered up and down the train. The ladies even arranged, and paid for, a restaurant to prepare and deliver breakfast, right to my bunk when we stopped at a nearby station.

An attendant came around, dishing out sheets, pillows and blankets. We drew the large curtain that covered our berth and I read for a while by the light above my bunk. Sleep came in fits and starts. Lying down, the train's every rock and bounce is exaggerated, so much so that it felt like a ship in stormy seas. I'd wake up from a doze certain we were about to capsize. Throughout the night, the train seemed to stop and remain stationary for long periods. Each time this happened I'd draw back the small curtain that covered the window in my berth, usually revealing a dimly lit station ¬– deserted but for a solitary figure, a silhouette on platform – never sure whether I was awake or dreaming.

Theroux said Mumbai "fulfils the big-city requirements of age, depth and, inspiring a chauvinism in its inhabitants, a threadbare metropolitan hauteur rivalled only by Calcutta”. This haughtiness is best seen in and around Kala Ghoda, an arty area whose colonial architecture looks all the better for being a little threadbare. But, for me, Calcutta is big-city India at its best – an old-world wonder with all the beautiful rundown buildings that go with it, where the iconic Hindustan Ambassadors taxis boss the roads until they're engulfed by a passing herd of goats.

My proposed route around India was what the guidebooks call The Grand Tour. Between Mumbai and Calcutta, it descended into The Grand Detour.

There were many reasons for this. It's not that easy to buy a train ticket in India, especially along the more popular routes. They're often fully booked weeks, sometimes months in advance. My longest train journey was almost two days straight, but was enjoyable. The most unpleasant trip was the shortest. Three cramped hours sat on the floor outside the toilet in Sleeper Class, the cheapest, most notorious kind of carriage.

After most trips, I felt I was finished with train travel. But it was never long before I was queuing again, elbowing my way to the front of the queue of a ticket office in some provincial train station, trying to book another seat. I also got a bit too comfortable in certain places. There were three lazy weeks in Goa, exploring the beaches of India's smallest state on a beat-up old moped, drinking the local brew and eating red hot chicken xacuti, a curry full of Kashmiri chillies. I zigzagged and backtracked and went around in circles. I twice visited Kerala. Its endless rolling green tea gardens, around a tiny village called Sengulam near a hill station known as Munnar, are mesmerising.

India's hill stations are towns built at altitude by colonising Europeans to escape the heat. Perhaps the most famous of these is Darjeeling. The train trip I most looked forward to was along the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. This route along a narrow gauge is a world heritage site and runs from New Jalpaiguri up 2,100 metres of switchback mountain. But when I was in West Bengal, due to a landslide, the steam locomotive wasn't running.

I went to Darjeeling anyway. By car. Stand almost anywhere in that town, found up in the foothills of the Himalayas, and the view is sublime. On a clear day, I could see from my hotel window the world's third-highest mountain, Kanchenjunga. I used the town as a base to explore the Singalila Ridge – a trekking route that offers, to the early riser, views of Everest. Back and forth I hiked across the border with Nepal, sleeping along the way in little lodges found in isolated farming villages.

I don't claim to be an expert on India. But, whenever I met and swapped recommendations with fellow travellers, I'd say try Kochi during Biennale, its huge contemporary arts festival. I would tell them to ignore the guidebooks and go to Bangalore for its bookshops, for its nightlife. And I'd suggest they wander without aim along the cluttered streets of Mysore and test their bartering skills at the loud and colourful Devaraja Market.

The truth, though, is that I left India with a list of places to visit far longer than one with which I arrived, and couldn't be happier about it.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees high-speed lines as being crucial to the country's development. One proposal suggests building work on high-speed lines could begin as early as 2017. India has much to gain from modernising its railway. But it'll lose something too.

When I think of the subcontinent, I think of train travel. I spent almost a week in total riding India's railways, travelling the better part of 10,000km. My best memories hang around a handful of sunny afternoons. I'm drinking sweet chai out of a paper cup, eating a vegetable samosa from a folded bit of newspaper. A dapper old Indian man – there was one on every train – stands over me going, "From which country do you come?"

He's the one that spends the entire trip pacing up and down the bogie, looking for a job to do, taking it upon himself to tell each and every one of his fellow passengers exactly how late the train is running, down to the minute, but never revealing where he's retrieving this information from. "Nice country," he'd say. "Accha, accha, accha," his words of agreement when I spoke.

On this train, the world outside the window changes in jump cuts: from lush green farmland to dry barren wasteland, the jungle, the desert, the sea, a one-room hut and an eight-bedroom mansion, people wearing lungis to work the field, commuters wearing officewear to wait for local trains, the mountain range, the valley, the plains, passing through slums, life at its toughest seen in snatches through windows in makeshift homes, children playing cricket anywhere there's room for a game, big waves, big smiles, people getting on with it, hope and despair, a better tomorrow.

The train stops at a station with a name that's a volley of awkward syllables. The bogie grows loud. "Chai, chai, chai-mmm," shout the boarding chaiwallahs, carrying giant pots of tea. "Paani, paani, paaniii" go the paaniwallahs, a bucket of bottled water on each shoulder. There's the rising chatter of voices speaking every one of India's 800 languages.

The train noises are equally memorising – buh-bump-bump, picking up speed, buh-bump-bump – and I feel truly like one of those travellers who doesn't need a destination, one who straddles the tracks, never arrives and never feels they ought to.

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