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How to stay sane (and safe) on an Indian sleeper train

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If you haven’t endured at least one journey on a sleeper train, did you really travel India?

Image credit: krebsmaus07 on Flickr

In June 2018, I spent a month in this beautiful country and some how managed to survive the sleeper trains three times. One of the largest railway networks in the world, India’s railway system covers over 40,000 miles, running through the Himalayan mountains, Rajasthani deserts, the booming cities of Delhi, Varanasi and Jaipur, towards the Goan beaches.

Although an eye opening adventure, it is not the easiest journey to bear. Here is my advice to help you stay sane (and safe) on an Indian sleeper train. You’ll thank me later…

Booking your ticket

India’s railway system is highly organised, with an eight-tier ticket system. I would recommend booking your tickets well in advance of your travel date. Although you will have the option of 1st class tickets through to 2nd class seating, I would advise women, especially those travelling solo, to opt for the 3rd tier. 3rd tier has three bunk beds per row and air conditioning. Most importantly, 3rd tier is the safest carriage for women travelling alone as there are many people including men, women and children around.

Of course, 1st and 2nd class are more ‘luxurious’, but ending up in a private carriage increases the risks of sexual assault and physical abuse. I would also advice women to be accompanied to the toilet if travelling in a group, or go before everyone sleeps to guarantee your safety. Check out the FCO site for more useful information on female safety abroad.

Chain your bag

Underneath the bottom bunk, there are metal rings to lock your bags to. Take advantage of this and come prepared with a chain and padlock. I did not encounter untrustworthy individuals on any of my three journeys, but knowing my bag was safely attached to my or my friends bunk allowed me to sleep a little more peacefully. However, I would recommend keeping valuable belongings, such as passport, phone, train ticket, etc. with you at all times. For example, although it was a squeeze, I kept my small rucksack containing my valuables by my pillow when sleeping.

The survival kit: 

  • The air conditioning is blissful during 30-degree heat, however at night the trains are freezing! Either rent a cheap blanket and pillow provided by the railway company or bring your own. You will snooze like a baby as the train rocks you off to sleep. 
  • Sleep with your head away from the corridor. You will probably be sharing a carriage with over 40 people. That is 40 people brushing, or more likely bashing, your head as they climb up to their bunks or walk to the toilet. 
  • Stay hydrated! As India’s railway system is prone to delays, I always took two litres of water with me. You never know how long the journey will be. 
  • The cuisine available on the trains is hit-and-miss, so take snacks for your journey. I’d highly recommend buying the freshly picked lychees sold on the train platforms though!
  • Hand sanitiser and toilet roll! I repeat, hand sanitiser and toilet roll! 
  • I made the mistake of wearing flip-flops to the toilet. Trying to use a squatter toilet whilst the train is rocking back and forth is a recipe for disaster…
  • Do not forget to take a portable phone charger. It’s essential to stay connected to family and friends so they know you’re safe and of your location. 
 

Unwanted encounters

One of the friendliest nations I’ve known, my encounters with the locals are some of my most treasured and humbling experiences. However, here's a list of situations you should be aware of and will want to avoid whilst on your train journey. 

  • People jumping onto the sleeper trains during the night often target young men travelling by themselves, to ask them for money. Even though you may be ‘cursed’ with foul language, do not pay them. Often, surrounding Indian men will shoo them off.
  • The trains have uniformed attendants who occasionally clean the carriages. They will not ask for money. If you see a cleaner polishing at your feet and demanding payment, refuse them.
  • Children requesting money is hard to ignore, but it is necessary. If children are successful in the begging trade, they are often kept out of school. In order to keep them in education, avoid giving them money. Instead, I often handed these children stationary: pens, pencils and paper, to assist with their learning. 
For more information on travel safety and awareness in India, please visit: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/india

Lead image credit: krebsmaus07 on Flickr




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