Mumbai Express

The morning of February 28, 2018, started fairly uneventfully, with a wander through a filthy slum to a train station.  Conny and I were just outside Mumbai and needed to catch a short train in and find somewhere to store my bicycle before heading north to Udaipur in time for Holi Festival the following day. After the usual attempts to scam me out of more money than was due I eventually secured tickets for the three of us onto a local Mumbai train in the luggage coach.

Once on the train, I realised neither us nor the bike actually required a ticket since it would be impossible to check tickets in this coach – it was jam-packed full of fish, vegetables, delivery boxes, small animals and various throngs of people carrying all sorts of items for sale to the 20-million inhabitants of Mumbai. How we managed to get the bicycle on was a small miracle in itself, not to mention that we had to change trains once along the way. This involved finding the exact right place to stand on the platform and then trying to crush into the luggage car against the exiting throng of people while other luggage passengers tried to crush in behind us with all their boxes and fruit carts etc.

Not Quite a Motorbike, But Okay

Around mid-day, we arrived at Dadar station in central Mumbai and immediately started the search for a decent bicycle storage location.  I was averse to just leaving it chained on the roadside for three weeks, even though I knew bike theft in India was very rare.  We wondered the streets for about an hour, ending up at a dusty car park between two run-down apartment blocks behind a police building.  There were some filthy cars and motorbikes around, looking very much like they had been there for years, and I briefly considered trying to hide the bike behind one of these.  However, after getting some advice from the local police, we were directed to a long-term motorcycle parking lot between two of the platforms which as usual in India turned out to be a lot harder to find than expected.

We walked up and down a few staircases and back-and-forth along rail over-passes before resigning to fate and asking for directions. The usual barrage of contradictory directions by confused locals ensued, and yet by some miracle, we actually managed to find it in the end!  We spoke to the guard on duty who initially seemed confused with the concept of storing a bicycle but eventually agreed to look after it for a small fee of 600 rupees. While we were there discussing things, two friendly crew members of an ambulance parked nearby offered to share their lunch with us – a common occurrence in India when almost anybody is eating.

Not Just the Wrong Platform – the Wrong Station

Having lightened my load considerably and had a filling lunch, we headed off to buy tickets for the 17-hour overnight train to Udaipur.  The first little window hole we asked instructed us we needed to go to window 26.  We wandered around for half an hour finding windows for every number except 26 until eventually inquiring at another window hole.  This one informed us we were not even at the right station and our train was actually leaving from the nearby Bandra station, so we had to take a local metro train and go three stops north.  Once there we were told we need to go a further few hundred metres to Bandra Terminus station where the mainline trains run from.  Luckily on the way, we were saved by a friendly local guy going the same way who let us share his tuk-tuk and showed us where to buy general class tickets (it was too late for seat reservations). 

By now it was ten minutes until our train so we ran off to the platform together.  Thinking that I was being clever, I abandoned the local guy who was heading to general class and jumped into a sleeper class carriage with Conny, hoping that we could find a free bed or seats for the journey.  Initially this worked well and we sat for the first few stops, but when the conductor came around, instead of telling us we were in the wrong seats he told us the part of the train we were in was not going to Udaipur and we needed to get off at the next station and move to the back carriage. I think this was just his roundabout way of telling us we need to go to general class, but at least he didn’t try to give us a fine.

Nope, Not That Station Either

With our backpacks back on our backs, we went over to the doorway to wait for the next stop.  After a short while, the train started to slow down at a station and had almost come to a complete stop when we hopped off.  As soon as we landed on the platform the train started to speed up again and someone on the platform shouted to us that it wasn’t stopping here!  I ran after the train and jumped back into one of the open doors, but by now it was moving too fast and Conny couldn’t catch it.  I looked back and saw her stuck on the platform and realised I would have to jump off again or lose her.  I hit the ground running but my feet folded under me and I body-slammed into the platform, skidding along the concrete for a few feet before coming to a stop.  I was pretty badly grazed and cut but didn’t appear to have any serious injuries, so got up and walked back to where Conny was now talking to a train official.

That was the last direct train to Udaipur, and as far as we knew our last chance to make it in time for Holi Festival. We tended to some of my wounds and then went with the train official to the station masters office to see if there is any other way.  After some discussions amongst themselves, they wrote down two trains for us that were going to a town called Ratlam, where they said we could get another train or bus to Udaipur.  First, however, we would need to go all the way back to Boraveli station since the platform we had jumped off on was at a tiny station and hardly any trains stopped here.  We got a metro train back to Boraveli and found a ticket counter to ask about trains to Ratlam.  I asked if we could get a refund on our previous tickets but were told we don’t need to buy new tickets, we can still use our current tickets on the Jaipur express to Ratlam.

Don’t Celebrate Just Yet

We found our platform, got some food and coffee and sat down to wait for the train to come.  Once it arrived we didn’t know where to get on and ended up in an expensive AC car so had to walk through a whole bunch of carriages to the back of the train.  General class was completely ram-packed as expected, and we couldn’t even get close to the door because of all the other people sitting in the corridor.  It looked like this train was very busy and I began to realize there is no chance we were going to get seats.  Oh well, only ten hours to Ratlam!

We wandered back aimlessly through the carriages hoping to find an empty square of floor to sit on, but without any luck. Fortunately, a nice guy in sleeper class said we can sit with him and a group of other people for a few hours until such a time as they needed to sleep.  He suggested it would be best if we got off at Vadodara station just after midnight and from there we could possibly get a bus to Udaipur in the morning.  Predictably, a ticket officer came around before Vadodara and once seeing our tickets, told us we would have to pay a fine. I argued that we had tried to get into general class but it was impossible, “There were too many people, what could we do?” I implored. Eventually, he let us off but told us we must get off at the next station, Surat, and either go to general class or find another train. This didn’t bode well for our Vadodara plans.

By the time the train reached Surat, it was almost midnight.  Most of the people in the berth were trying to sleep and we felt a bit like we were imposing, so we decided we better move anyway.  We tried again in vain to get into general class but it was even more packed now than before!  We ended up squashing into the corridor just outside with a group of other exiles who were no doubt initially upset with our invasion, but politely made space for us anyway.  Unfortunately, it was in the corridor where the toilets were located and for some reason, the entire train decided now was the time to go.  We spent the next half an hour being stepped on, cursed at and squashed past by a never-ending stream of full (and then empty) bladdered passengers.

Arrival to Ahmedabad

Typically, just half an hour before Vadodara, the ticket inspector returned. This time he was a bit more vehement in his protests that we must pay a 900 rupee fine. Unfortunately for him, the entire contents of my wallet came to just over 50 rupees, if you include the half-century-old 20 paise coin I was carrying around in the hope of one day selling for a fortune – he certainly wasn’t getting that treasure!  Upon seeing the sad state of my wallet he suddenly developed a smidgen of pity and walked off mumbling something under his breath in Hindi, no doubt about poor foreigners with no respect for the sanctity of Indian trains. He also attempted to fine the other passengers sitting around with us, but had about the same amount of luck.

Finally, just after midnight, we began to slow down and Vadodara station crept up slowly outside the windows.  We alighted amongst a throng of exiting and entering passengers and stumbled out into the dimly lit station. During the train journey I had done a quick google search and found that while there we no sleeper buses to Udaipur from Vadodara, we might be able to get a 5:30 am sleeper bus from Ahmedabad – another town only a few hours away.  While we were going to check about any trains to Ahmedabad, the nice guy from the train who had helped us earlier came up to see if we were okay.  After explaining to him our plan he shook his head and informed us there were no more trains now, but he will drive us to the local bus station where buses to Ahmedabad leave regularly all night.

We thanked him profusely as he dropped us off and he instructed us to catch the bus from platform one.  This was confirmed by the information office and after a quick toilet stop a bus soon arrived and we were on our way.  The bus was extraordinarily busy for 1 am but a nice man made space for Conny to sit and I made myself comfortable on the floor in the aisle, reading my very appropriate literature – a book called “India Calling” – while Conny dozed off.

A Much Needed Sleeper Bus

The bus ride was quicker than I expected and we were in Ahmedabad by 3 am, which gave us two and half hours to kill until our sleeper bus.  We flopped down on the floor against a pillar and ate our remaining few snacks.  We were both in surprisingly good spirits considering we had been travelling non-stop for almost 20 hours by now over nine separate journeys – instead of one!  The time passed quickly as we looked back at the day and joked about our situation, and before we knew it 5 am had struck and it was time to catch a tuk-tuk a short distance to the other bus stand where the big sleeper buses departed from.

The usual price negotiations began and we went back and forth between tuk-tuk drivers until the original driver eventually offered to take us for roughly the price we had quoted him to start with. This is a bizarre ritual that needs to be enacted every time you get a tuk-tuk, even though both of you know that in the end, he will take you for the fair price you originally asked for.

The distance ended up being a bit further than I had gauged from Google Maps and for a brief second I worried we might be late, but of course, the sleeper bus was delayed by an hour and would only leave at 6:30 am.  The office clerk who checked our tickets explained: “Bus is always late”.  Conny promptly fell asleep in the waiting room as I tried to explain to him that if they know the buses are always late then why not just advertise it as leaving an hour later?  This logic was clearly lost on him so I wandered off to find more of the sweet milky tea that is the lifeblood of India.  A few cups later and a couple of chapters of my book and lo-and-behold the 11th and (hopefully) final vehicle of our epic journey arrived. With the sun just beginning to peak over the horizon we fumbled aboard, found our tiny bus bed and both instantly passed out – sleeping without interruption for the entire five-hour journey.

As I disembarked at the Udaipur bus stand, still half asleep but feeling very victorious, I asked another English guy where he had come from.

“Mumbai” he replied.

“Oh us too,” I laughed “Took us about 28 hours and 10 different trains and buses!”

The response I got was a look of utter confusion.  It was at that moment I noticed the huge letters plastered across the side of the bus:


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