Travelling Sleeper Class in Rajasthan

How do you prepare for travelling sleeper class in an exotic country? Chances are you might not have laid eyes upon something as well-run and efficient, yet so insane and chaotic, as the Indian railways.  In true Indian style their railways, like everything else, are a land of contrasts.
 
As dusk started to take hold we were barreling out through the outskirts of the New Delhi slums. The evening breeze coming in through the windows cooled the muggy carriage air and the elderly Indian lady began reading my book along with me over my shoulder. Life is for sharing in India, and time spent on the trains highlights exactly that. Young men played cards on the higher berths, leaning over my head to pass playing cards to one another and high-school kids jostled to get selfies taken with me – something I got told later they would probably use to prove to their friends they now had a wealthy Westerner friend or girlfriend.

During my time in Northern India I spent around 40 hours navigating the overnight Rajasthan railway systems, and I can happily report I had (mostly) wonderful experiences, and it was the best way to really experience Indian culture and life. The key is to be well prepared in advance, and know what to expect. It makes all the difference, and seriously arms you for an enjoyable rail journey around the state of Rajasthan (or anywhere in India, for that matter!) 

Where did I go in Rajasthan?

During my one month journey into the popular Northern state of Rajasthan, I caught 4 different overnight trains (and numerous daytime ones & busses too)
  1. Took the 6 hour JSL express from Delhi to Jaipur  class: sleeper price: 205 rs. time: 1735-2335
  2. Then the 12 hour JSL express from Jaipur to Jaisalmer class: AC3 but upgraded to AC2  price: 905rs  time: 2335-1135
  3.  The 5 hour Leelan Express from Jaisalmer to Bikaner  class: sleeper price: 268 rs. time: 23:55-05:20
  4. And finally the ~15 hour BKN HW Special from Bikaner to Haridwar class: sleeper price: 508 rs. time: 19:45-10:25
Despite having traveled via train across more than 10 different countries (Thailand, Malaysia, Bulgaria,  France… to name a few..) all of my locomotive experience had been during the day. To say the least, I was super excited to spend a night on the rails!
  
New Delhi station is huge an chaotic. As I had no particular travel plans, just a glimmer of an idea, I didn’t book a ticket in advance. It took me quite a lot of wandering around this massive station to find the tourist office, but in the end I found it..  However the ticket I wanted was not available so on a whim I picked up a cheap, last minute ticket to Jaipur instead.
  
 My train left from Old Delhi station, rather than New Delhi where I was. It’s a good thing to pay careful attention to the particular station you need – there’s often more than one. Passing time wandering around the are of Old Delhi was a hot and sweaty affair, topped off by loads of dust and an abundance of over-enthusiastic touts and hawkers. I sat down on a rickety plastic table and gorged myself on 40r rupee all-you-can-eat thali. There was no WiFi around and I had no plan for my midnight arrival into Jaipur. 

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Making a Plan of Attack for Jaipur

Once at the platform I found a McDonalds and sat outside it to get some WiFi. Luckily for me, a sweet young McDonalds worker spied me and came outside to usher me in. No purchase needed, in fact he even used his Indian phone number to register me on the WiFi (note: Free WiFi is available in most Indian train stations, but you will need an Indian phone number to activate it). I managed to book myself into Zostel in Jaipur and message a friend of mine staying there, asking him to advise the reception of my late arrival.

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India Trains: Sometimes Early, Sometimes Very, Very Late

Before I knew it I was starting to run late. Time to rush to the platform. By the time I arrive, guys are taking down the reservations paperwork from the boards. They speak no English but signal to me that the train just left. Feeling exhausted and defeated I head to the newsagents, informing the vaguely English speaking guy that my train left 10mins early. What do I do? No. It hasn’t left, it turns out. Just a different platform that’s not mentioned on any of the signs.
  
Note: I have since met people who’ve missed trains because they did in fact leave early. Up to two hours early. (And sometimes they are late by as much at 8 or 9 hours, too) Always check the running times earlier in the day on the Indian Railways website or Cleartrip app!
  

img_20160913_174356Boarding the Train

These trains are seriously long. Carriages stretch out toward the horizon. Where do I sit?  I thought, wondering in and out of various carriages, getting sent every-which-way by other passengers. Without so much as a whistle, train starts rolling away.. So like something out of a bad film I grab a handrail and haul myself on board just as it pulls out of the station.
  
After much wandering and enquiring I finally find my carriage. It’s a bit old and made up of mostly chains and bars, but it’s clean enough. I get a rush of excitement.. there’s nobody else here, maybe get this berth to myself! No such luck, as people pack in over the next few stations. 4-5 people each bench, piled up on the higher beds. Once we’re snuggly fitted into our spots, we begin to roll out through slums. The atmosphere both in and outside of the carriage is colourful and alive.
  
The lack of air conditioning on board is fine with the breeze coming through the window. The sun begins to set and I settle in to enjoy a book. It’s a little cramped and I’m thankful for my three bottles of water and window seat. Later in the evening they will come to pull down the beds, and it won’t be so busy. A bunk to myself is luxury and I stretch out to enjoy the ride – my first experience travelling sleeper class, not just in India, but anywhere in the world
  

 Key tips & takeaways:

  • You can often get last minute seats by being flexible and checking into the tourist counter on the day

  • Beware of touts who try and convince you not to go to the tourist desk

  • Check your PNR on the Clear trip or Indian Rail app a few times in advance for signs of trains running early (yes, it happens) late (considerably, often) or for spontaneous upgrades to your ticket
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Things to bring when travelling sleeper class:

  • Make sure to bring a chain or bikelock to lock your back safely away while you sleep. Tip: I have a simple plastic-coated bike lock which does a fantastic job, and costs a fraction of the price of speciality travel-locks from travel stores. This is one item you can definitely cut costs on.  
  • Sleeper class is an excellent way to experience the real India experience, but BYO blankets and pillows! Tip: If you’re limited on space (like me) I take a pillowcase or laundry bag and stuff it full of my clean scarves and sweaters to create a pillow on the go. 
  • My sleeping liner is an absolute godsend. It provides a safe space to curl up in, and provides added privacy as your legs won’t pop out in the night. Tip: I have a bug-proof treated one that is antibacterial and has a pocket inside to keep my important smaller bits and pieces safe and secure. I currently have a cotton one, which works well, but the silk ones are even nicer (and way smaller/lighter)  
  • Except on certain routes, food is not provided. The selections at the train station are lacking in imagination, so bring something tasty of your own.
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Useful Sites, Blogs & Apps:

Cleartrip – A must-have for foreign visitors, simplifies the booking system with an easy-to-use app, and lets you book using international credit cards. You’ll still need an IRCRS account to use it, however.
IRCRS – The official Indian Railways ticket booking website. You’ll need to sign up here to book any trains through the internet (or for using other apps such as cleartrip) But can be clunky and difficult to navigate. Once registered you’re better off moving over to a more user friendly app.
Confirmtkt – Ultimate in useful apps for booking waitlist tickets, or finding alternate routes (including busses). Uses a fantastic algorithm to calculate the chances of you getting on a particular train, and also provides a host of other handy features such as setting an alarm for when the train pulls into your desired station.

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