A cautionary tale of lentils and the Jammu Mail train

I’m having a flashback to Russia – the a second-class train sleeper (with air-con!) is an open affair of double-decker bunks that double as seats in the daytime. Before we borded the night train, the station platform was full of hungry travellers queuing for Aloo McTikka burgers from McDonalds, so it was round to the second window, serving Chinese and Indian, where I got my takeaway delights of lentils and chapatti. I have eaten a lot of lentils of late. Lucky I like lentils.

It was a crushing affair to leave the comforts of the Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi. The bed was big and soft, the butler service immaculate (“Madam, you are tired. Please let me run you a bath with soothing salts.”) The trade-off is I’m on the road, gunning it to Dharamsala on the Jammu Mail train. The name suggests she’s not a cannon, and in the first few minutes, she’s lived up to her name.

It’s a real Canterbury Tales brew of folk: there’s a young couple from Moscow whose baby, fat-cheeked, milk white and happy, was born here in India. A vast family of Indian diners using my bed as a dinner table. A mid-50s couple from somewhere north of Vancouver (“Is this your first time on a train?” they ask before regaling me with tales of crushing humanity and waking up beside Indian men who thought two-to-a-bunk is perfectly acceptable). And a Ukrainian coffee fiend who also turns out to be a Master of Darkness.

“I have spent 52 days in a dark room, meditating, and I want more,” says Yuri, who is, incidentally, the happiest Ukrainian I have ever met. As everyone settles down for bed, he regales me with tales of group energy exchanges, extreme yoga and 80s tantric universities. It’s exactly the conversation I had hoped to have on the train up to Dharamsala, exiled home of the Tibetan living god, the Dalai Lama, and therefore a drawcard for every yoga-loving, om-chanting, fishermans-pants-wearing, dreadlocked westerner.

Yuri, Master of Darkness, is sleeping in the bunk above me, a silent Indian man in the one opposite and a stocky old Tibetan man, whose wife carefully makes his bed with the Indian Railways issue of sheets and pillow, in the opposite upper bunk. This is no pyjama party, it’s sleep with your clothes on, your shoes safely tucked away and your passport by your skin. I have bought a shoddy Indian lock and chain for R40 (about a dollar) so I can chain my laptop and camera bag to the bed.

That night, the silent Indian man proves not so silent, and snores raucously through the journey, then begins the day with another, less special but equally loud, bodily cacophony. I wake from a heavy sleep in the early morning, stretching my legs to nudge something soft and impenetrable at the end of my bed. It’s the old Tibetan man from the upper bunk. And he’s chanting his morning prayers. He doesn’t seem to notice that I’ve just stuck a toe in his ribs, and continues his deep, rumbling chant, counting on his sandalwood beads.

I flag a cup of tea from a passing chai-seller then stand to see Yuri on the upper bunk, eyes also closed in a spot of early-morning meditation, then the Canadians, super-chirpy in a Ned Flanders fashion check to see that I’m awake, and we grab gear and fall out of the train.

Ashok, my driver, is waiting with a printed sign and air-conditioned 4WD, and my last view of the older Canadians is them piled on a bicycle rickshaw, bags thrown behind them as their little man starts picking up speed. “See you!” their words float on the morning breeze as they pass. “We’re travelling in styyyyyyyyyyyyyllllllllllllllle!”

About the author

Fear is found on a creaking glacier in the Caucasus mountains and joy is encapsulated in the perfect Shanghai dumpling. And while I love a $500-a-night hotel room (who doesn’t?), sometimes the best stories are found in a $20 guesthouse. With an eye always out for good markets and great street eats, I write the travel news and features for the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age newspapers, and features for whoever else asks. I have a particular soft spot for the wilds of the Middle East, scarves and carpets. My articles and photographs have been published in a range of consumer magazines and newspapers in Australia and abroad.

3 thoughts on “A cautionary tale of lentils and the Jammu Mail train

  1. look UP in dharamsala – loads of monkeys in the trees, on telegraph wires, buildings etc. but the big DLs temple is most humble … we though we were at the wrong place

  2. Hi F.I. nice to see you! I most certainly looked up. The buggers were everywhere. I had a nice young guide, very tall and healthy, who clung to me (like I was clinging to him) as terrified as I was of the malevolent buggers. I'm not a fan. Heading to Shimla tmw… any tips?

  3. At least this isnt a "Transiberian" express…specially with the Ukranian..telling his tales…but rather it seems you're more like a female Owen Wilson.. travelling on the Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Express..only in this case its a Mail train..so the collection of passengers is much more eclectic and the journey possibly more excruciatating!!

    Still a good cup of Chai..always makes things seem better!..its that old reliability factor ..something common ..it seems in most of India!

    Of course the contrast in sleeping quarters from the "Passage to India" experience to the "we're all in this together" Mail Train
    …Well the appreciation of a "nice bed for the night" ..takes on a whole new significance!!

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