The Great Circular Indian Railway Challenge – Day 5

By Lloyd C | Updated February 26th, 2011

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PSSSHHHHHHH!!!! Air screams from the train’s undercarriage as ‘someone’ (names redacted to protect the not-so-innocent) pulls the emergency brake lever. People all over the platform run to the source of the sound; they shout foreign words like gunfire while the conductor chases after them with an authoritative growl.

The GCIRC team is now split: half on the platform, half in the train. Chaos reigns as an argumentative battle ensues. Big military men with big military guns have now joined the melee, and it looks like it’s getting really serious now.

We were all set for our 12-hour ride from Udhampur to New Delhi. The self-titled gentlemen’s club (Mark, John, Jason and Andrew) were tucked away enjoying a quiet nip of booze, a group of us where collaborating on a ‘best of GCIRC’ blog post, and the others were reading books, taking a nap, having a chit-chat, and generally just pottering about.

  • Train: Uttar Sampark Kranti Express
  • Depart: Udhampur @ 19:05 on 22-Feb-11
  • Destination: New Delhi @ 06:15 on 23-Feb-11 (estimated)
  • Distance: 630 km, over 11 hours

A Moment Earlier

The train had just reached Jammu station, when a crowd of locals boarded the train and demanded we move from our seats. We brushed them off with a quick, ‘no guys, these are our seats, check the allocation table posted near the door’. But they were insistent. ‘No, these are our seats, let’s see your boarding passes, you are wrong, you have to get off.’ That got our attention.

‘Guys’, one of our team said, ‘trust me, these aren’t your seats, now please check the allocation table.’ You can see where this is going. The train conductor joined the party and din’t mince his words, ‘You don’t have tickets. Get OFF the train now!’ And it went back and forth until Steve, our resident train expert, came back into the carriage to confirm, ‘uh oh, #%@#%#, the allocation table says we’re only on till Jammu, oh no, we have to get off.’

And then it Started

Fast forward a little… half of us got off, but the train started moving and the other half were nowhere to be seen. Now it was frenzy time. But before I could grasp the seriousness of our team being split, I heard that screaming PSSSHHHHHHH!!!! as the train screeched to a halt.

John appeared at the train door, frothing at the mouth, and ordered the rest of us back on the train. We looked around, first at the conductor, then at the big military men with big military guns, then at John, then at each other, then back to John, who by this stage had ordered us back onto the train a few times, then at the conductor again… and then one-by-one we marched back onto the train at the utter amazement and befuddlement of the train conductor and all of his un-merry men who couldn’t believe we were defying their authority, let alone the authority of the big military men with big guns.

Time To Get Serious

Part of me was thinking, ‘woohoo, more adventure’. But part of me was wondering what all the fuss was about. Luckily my nonchalance hadn’t worn off on the team, because if it had, we’d still be in Jammu trying to get to Delhi in dribs and drabs fighting for unallocated seats. Thankfully, John’s oconviction kept us on track, still heading to Delhi, still on time, and still in the race we now know as the GCIRC.

So what happened? We thought our seats were double booked. But our seats had simply changed at Jammu. Of course we weren’t told this, and it’s a bit inconvenient to change sleeping berths half way through a 12-hour overnight trip, but to the conductor’s defence, the seating allocation table did state we were only in those seats until Jammu, even if it was uniquely coded and mostly indecipherable.

Just as we thought we’d be spending the remaining 10 hours standing up in the vestibule, which again seemed like a bit of an adventure to me, a proactive local assumed position as our spokesman, grabbed one of our tickets, marched over to the conductor, and before we could blink, he had us new seats. ‘What? Huh? New Seats? Really? Woohoo!!!’

A Day in Udhampur

Prior to the adventure on the night train, we spent the day in Udhampur. It’s home to the northernmost operating train station in India and a very different India to what we’d already experienced. We walked about the town talking to locals and taking lots of pictures. There were three very memorable encounters.

Udhampur Encounter #1
We were invited to an engagement party by a few young local girls. They were surprisingly outgoing, had flawless English, and were adamant that everyone wanted us to come to the party. Standing 6ft tall with long blonde hair, Lauren was the main attraction and was even asked to sit for pictures with the bride-to-be.

The rest of us mingled awkwardly, while the more outgoing guests approached us to ask questions. All-in-all, it was a great experience and the girls took Lauren’s email address to keep in contact.

It was a real shame that as we left our hotel, the hotelier tried (and succeeded) to charge us (or rip us off, depending on your point of view) for eating at the engagement party. We don’t mind paying our way, but this was the hotelier’s last resort after previously trying to rip us off for many other things. What makes this much worse, is out of the goodness of Mark’s heart, he spent half the day building the hotelier a website to attract more business. It really was an unconscionable act, so I have to warn you against staying at Hotel Samrat in Udhampur.

Udhampur Encounter #2
As we walked the circuitous streets and alleyways, Steve came across a guy working in a garage on a loom the size of a small bus. It was one of the most intricate pieces of manually operated machinery I’d ever seen. While the operator pressed a series of pedals and pulled a series of strings, we watched a plaid blanket coming to life right in front of our eyes.

Although this guy couldn’t speak a lick of English, we were able to communicate in other ways and really enjoy each others’ company for the 15 or so minutes that we demonstrated the big machine for us.

Udhampur Encounter #3
After 5 days on the GCIRC, a few of the unwashed, who coincidentally are not part of the gentlemen’s club, are looking a little shabby and in need of a good shave. Troy spotted a barber and so we all stepped in to watch Steve and Troy get a good ol’ traditional Indian shave.

Steve was first up, and Troy took some great photos on his big DSLR. Some of the pics were imposingly close to the barber, but he was loving the company and we were all basking in a moment of true Indian immersion. Locals gathered outside, Troy kept snapping away, another gentleman entered the shop and started up a conversation about his days in the Indian army visiting the Congo, and it was just great encounter all told.

As Troy stepped into the chair, Steve stepped out to buy chai for everyone, including the two disheveled girls who were begging out front. But while the barber was at work, he didn’t miss a beat, even with that foreign lens stuck to his face and a cacophony of surrounding chatter. When he was done, Steve asked, ‘How much?’. We couldn’t understand what he was saying, until the the ex-military gentleman said, ‘It’s free.’ ‘Free? Why? Huh? No No No. We took over his shop! We took hundreds of photos! What do you mean free?’

Steve passed him 100 rupees, knowing the going rate for two shaves would be much less. The barber was adamant, but not nearly as adamant as us. So he compromised and handed back 60 rupees in change, which we assumed represented the going rate. Yep, 20 rupees per shave, which is barely 40 cents (USD/AUD/CAD). Again too adamant, we refused and left him with the full hundred (a whole $2.20, perhaps). The crowd outside looked a little worried as they didn’t know what to make of all the fuss.


Some of the team were wound a little too tightly after the allocation saga, so the next day, Drew uttered the most precient words of the trip, ‘Breathe… people.’ And with that, the GCIRC was back on track, rolling with the power of an India freighter.

Signing out – the Globetrooper Team