Getting tickets to Dehli from NJP was like winning a lottery. We tried to casually buy them at the quaint little Darjeeling train station (above, also Darjeeling steam train above) but were rapidly faced with the monstrous bureaucratic country-wide Indian Rail, which operates on 30-year old desktop computers when it’s not on paper. Computer guys at the Darjeeling train station high-fived when they were able to get us tickets because it was such a long shot. We were trying to buy the elusive ‘tatkal tickets’, a category reserved for emergencies because trains are frequently sold out months in advance. Tatkal tickets (say that three times fast!) are available two days before travel, and not a minute before 10am on that day. We had to wait, fill out forms, and hope. A few others in line that day in Darjeeling were doing the same thing. Did we have enough cash? Mr. Fantastic ran to the ATM minutes before 10 and barely made it while my guy was typing in our info with superfast fingers on his outdated desktop. DH and I were in separate lines because you can only buy up to four tatkal tix on one form, and yes, there was a paper form for each of us. We filled them out and held them clutched in our sweaty hands as we hoped for six, not fewer, tickets in reasonable proximity to each other on the 40-hour train ride two nights long. At just before 10, we had our papers stamped, which we think meant we were guaranteed our place in line. Then at precisely 10am, the rapid typing by the guys behind the counter and attaboys all around as we were handed our tickets. Whew!
But that was all before leaving Darjeeling. At this point in the story, our intrepid adventurers were heading towards NJP to catch that train. We had left Darjeeling on the toy train to Kurseong where we spent a wonderful night and a day and now we had to continue downhill to the valley.
We had plenty of time as we left Kurseong. We took a jeep-like car with a fabric roof and canvas windows with no glass. It was pleasant in the rain though a tad unsettling to realize how easily the car would be crushed should we slide a few inches on the wet road towards the steep cliffs! But we had an uneventful ride to NJP where we were about 4 hrs early for our train. We had dinner and read and sat on our piled luggage on a platform over the rails. We listened to the repetitive announcements, always preceded by a recorded harp playing a scale, about incoming trains, trains running late, and trains at the station. Our train was announced as being on ‘right time’ which pleased us, though we were left in the dark about which was the appropriate platform. The announcement came minutes before our train arrived, and we made our way to the correct car.
We arranged our beds and got comfortable for the night. We were in a class 3ac sleeper, a little more crowded than a 2ac but we still had a bed each and linens.
We had train-car neighbors who cared for an older man with a tracheostomy and some mobility issues, possibly post-stroke. It was nice to see this care by the family; the man almost definitely would have been in a nursing home in the US. Mr. Fantastic hypothesized that the man could be quite ill and visiting a Hindu spiritual site our train was to pass through to help his rebirth in his next life. Come to find out, the family was Christian (they told us, plus it was obvious from the Christian music and prayers we heard from them in English), the older man was ambulatory and looking spry despite his medical challenges, and they were headed to Dehli. So much for making predictions about our fellow travelers!
We made friends with a young Dehli family returning after a wedding.
Their young daughter liked playing with our kids as the train rumbled along. I enjoyed talking with the mom, a dentist, and the dad, who worked for an educational book company and had traveled several times to the US. We had good conversations with other passengers as well. There were many who spoke English well and we were interested in each other’s countries. We had a second night on the train and a delayed arrival the next morning. And then we were there in the big crazy city.
We got a ride to a hotel we had written down, which turned out to be near many backpacker hotels with large neon signs. It looked like a strip of Las Vegas businesses. We put down our luggage and contacted our friends. Unbelievably, they were in Dehli and found their way to our hotel within a couple of hours. What a great reunion! The kids and parents were happy to see each other and we made plans for our upcoming week together. We started with Sufi singers that very night. S, the mama in the family, has been to India in the past and is much more educated about the culture than we are. She told us of a Thursday night tradition in a mosque in a different part of town, and before long we were headed there on the Dehli subway. The subway itself was impressive, large, crowded, a little confusing. But we were four adults strong now and I, for one, felt empowered. We walked a mile or so from the station and entered a network of winding alleys with shops selling Muslim items such as prayer rugs and men’s skullcaps.
The crowds seemed to grow as the alleys narrowed. We were hungry and looking for a restaurant, but none appeared. We did see many butcher shops festooned with animal innards- a rarity for us since leaving Thailand. Eventually, we had a restaurant name from a guidebook and by asking around, we found it. At one point the 10 of us got separated attempting to follow a fast-moving septuagenarian local through the maze-like roads. I was with the group left behind and we stopped and watched the activity while waiting for the others. On two sides of us were butchers, three or four roads intersected, and rivers of people flowed every which way. We eventually reconnected and made it to the place.
The restaurant was rather meat-centric, impressed with itself (it was mentioned in Time magazine or something similar and would not let you forget the fact) and overpriced but the food was very good. After eating, we went to the mosque that seemed to be in the center of the neighborhood.
We were at Hazrat Nizam-ud-din Dargah, a sacred site with the grave of an important Muslim Sufi Saint. Men in fez hats and white robes sang at a marble temple in a maze of bazaars selling cloth and burning copious incense.
I felt like we were in the Middle East and maybe many centuries ago. It was crowded and there were many people in robes, women in scarves, plates of rose petals for sale. S wrote a lovely blog post about our reunion and our evening.
The next day, we had tickets for a train to Agra. We missed the train due to the confusion of which of the 3 Dehli train stations we were supposed to go to. We were able to get another train a few hours later, after a pleasant wait in the ‘foreign traveler lounge’ at the station. Agra, of course, is home to the legendary Taj Mahal. We saw it after some initial setbacks despite bench among the first in line that day. It really is a glorious, graceful building. I loved seeing the women in saris there against all the marble. Also, what doesn’t show up in a lot of photos are the gorgeous inlaid stone designs. So much beauty.
The marble is so smooth and pale, the symmetry is so lovely, the whole place just imparts serenity. Here is S’s post about our joint experience. A funny aspect to me was this: we were literally at the Taj Mahal and people wanted to take pictures of… our kids! Yes, they’re cute and we had 6 of them in our group but I just couldn’t picture this happening at, say, the Statue of Liberty. Especially when people would hand them a baby for some group shots.