Sleeper class. Two words that can fill you with nervous unease if you are about to take your first train trip in India and you can't afford the icy luxury and scratchy blankets of the air-conditioned carriages- or you just don't want them. But sleeper class is actually better than sliced bread. It isn't what you have seen in so many movies- the carriages aren't packed to exploding, there are no people hanging out the doors, you won't have to cram yourself into a space meant for a child's backpack. That's in general class. You don't want to travel in general class. Although it may be the only place you will ever see a grown man haul his tiny ancient mother onto the luggage racks above the seats, where she settles in for the journey.
Sleeper class is cheap and unfancy. But you get your own bunk, the chai man comes around with satisfying regularity, you can go and stand by the window and watch the towns, villages and fields of India blurring past your eyes if you get bored in your seat. And did I mention it is cheap? You can expect to pay around $6 for an eighteen hour trip in sleeper class on the trains of India. It is also so much safer than buses that there is really no comparison. But there are certain things you should know before you embark on your first rail riding journey.
I remember feeling nervous before my first trip in sleeper class. I was scared of thieves, food poisoning, missing my stop, every other terrible scenario I could conjure up in my mind before we set off. But upon arrival, the only thing I had to worry about was exhaustion because my nerves won out over sleep that night. After several trips to India and a lot of rail journeys my major concerns now are whether any of the people in the carriage with us will snore and if there will be good train station snacks along the way. But to set possibly nervous minds at ease, here's some of the knowledge I've gathered along the tracks...
Always buy an overnight ticket. If it is possible. You may think night time train travel will be unsafe and uncomfortable. I used to think that, I'm sure. But it is safe, and compared to the monotony and the hours of sitting you will have to endure, awake, during the day there is no contest. There are also people on every train who either don't buy a ticket or don't have an assigned seat who sit in sleeper class until the ticket man tells them to move. This may not seem like your problem. But the etiquette of sleeper class demands that you convert your bunk to communal seats during the day, so these extra people suddenly do become your problem when they are all up in your area, squashing you against the window and having questionably loud mobile phone conversations beside you. The beauty of night-time travel is that you can, with no guilt, fold down your bunk and go to sleep thus politely and reasonably ejecting these interlopers from your journey.
Top bunks are the cat's pyjamas for this reason also. No cramming, no guilt, stretched legs, endless naps.
Don't be surprised when you get a tap on the leg or a rattling of your bunk in the middle of the night. It is the ticket inspector, he always appear several hours after departure. Have your ticket near you so you can sleepily hand it to him and go back to sleep.
You get a bunk in sleeper class, but that's all. BYO bed sheet- which you can pick up in any Indian town for about $3- to cocoon in, hide under or sleep on.
And soft scarves or clothes to bundle into a pillow.
Wear socks- it gets strangely cold in the wee hours of the morning. An over-sized hoodie is also something I have come to love on these train trips. It is warm, cosy and excellent for pulling over your eyes to mentally and physically block out all the chattering around you.
Be ready to be woken up by people hocking plegm, making incredibly urgent phone calls or very necessary (loud) idle chit-chat at 6am. It's morning. Wake up.
The chai from the train wallahs is good. It costs seven rupees and the sugar breaks the tedium. The train coffee tastes like ham.
Upon arrival at a station, always scan the platform for good snack options immediately. That way you can be out, lining up and back on the train with your goodies well before the departure horn blasts. Rural platforms are also teeming with fantastic photos waiting to be taken.
That is my bible of cheap Indian train travel. Hopefully it will help you stay sane on that eighteen hour journey. You may even enjoy it.