Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Heat to Heights -- Lucknow to Shimla

March 26 -

I think you can tell the class of sleeper cars on the train by the odors. There is a pervasive smell of male urine (we all agree that no woman’s urine could smell as disgustingly heavy) in the Sleeper Class cars. Sleeper Class is the lowest of the cars with sleeping facilities (I use this term loosely... complete description to follow). Above Sleeper Class is 3AC, 2AC and, finally, the creme de la creme 1AC. There are also levels beneath Sleeper Class which are sitting areas only that can be extremely crowded and the quality of fellow passengers poses more of a challenge to your and your luggage’s safety.

I’ve never stayed in 1AC but I hear it’s quite posh (porters to help with your luggage and offer you food and drinks). The other three classes have some similarities (in general, of course):

*The sleeping areas are arranged like two-sided compartments with two or three beds on each side (2AC=two beds/side; 3AC and Sleeper=3 beds/side)

*The top (or middle) bed swings down to form the back of the seat during the day and up for a bed at night

And some differences:

*From 2AC to 3AC to Sleeper the space goes from relatively clean to less clean to not clean at all

*In 2AC and 3AC they provide sheets and pillows; in Sleeper they provide nothing (which is a problem if you don’t realize this and have no blanket...especially if you’re wearing a skirt)

*2AC ad 3AC have air conditioning (although rarely needed except in the hot, hot summer); Sleeper has strong fans (that are often a point of contention between passengers...there are always those who want them on and others who insist of turning them off)

*The quality of people devolves as you move from 1AC to Sleeper (which says something about Art Karavan...we stay in Sleeper). Friendly families and interesting English-speaking businesspeople populate the AC coaches; by the time you get down to Sleeper there are people like the man we bunked with recently that kept urging Anna to join him in bed and flashed porn her way via his cellphone. The safety of your luggage also becomes less assured as you drop levels (although I’ve never had anything stolen).

*Food follows a similar pattern starting from excellent meals in 1AC (I surmise!) to lesser quality and variety as you move down through the levels. (Every time the train rolls into the station, however, vendors of all sorts mob the trains and make a speedy sweep through the cars selling everything from tea to omelets to packaged meals.)

On our trip from Lucknow to Simla we stayed in Sleeper Class. Anna, Christina, Yola and I shared our compartment with an Indian mother and daughter (who weren’t very nice at all). Within an hour of the start, the Indians announced that they were going to bed and, since their beds were the lower ones, we were forced out of our “room.” This worked out just fine,though, since we went and hung out with a bunch of Karavaners drinking and smoking, talking and laughing until 1:30 am.

I figured this would be just fine since we were going to be on the train until 10 am; only problem was that the Indian mother got up at 4:30 am, turned on the light in our faces and happily proceeded with her morning routine. But thanks to eyemasks and earplugs, we all managed to get some sleep.

We took the train to Chandigar (one of India’s first planned cities... Courbousier designed much of the city) and then another train to Kulka. In Kulka they have a “Toy train” (smaller gage than normal) that take you on a scenic journey into the mountains and Simla. However, we hadn’t made reservations and the train was fully booked, so we ended up hiring a couple mini-buses for the 3 (or 4...or 5) hour trip to Simla.

For once, a roadtrip into the mountains wasn't a terrifying event...our driver actually drove relatively slowly and safely (i.e., only occasionally passed on outside blind curves around mountains with 1000 foot cliffs dropping away inches from the edges of the tires). Shimla is built on the steep sides of the mountains ... nestled in the beautiful mountain range, the houses, hotels and shops cling precariously to the rocky slopes (I really do wonder how they build their structures... must have some well-designed foundations!)

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