Bombay’s main railway station is vast, Victorian and teeming with people. I stood there feeling at a loss as to how to navigate through the crowd. Bombay is the biggest city in India and I didn’t have the energy to explore it. I stood in a queue, requested a ticket for the next train to New Delhi and was told they were sold out. I stood at the head of the queue wondering what to do next until the ticket seller took pity on me and said:
– Speak to Station Supervisor. Only he can help you.
The Station Supervisor’s office felt like a museum about Britain in the 1930s: shabby old cardboard files were stacked against each wall, from floor to ceiling; each file was bulging with paperwork, tied with string and covered in dust. An endless stream of small, thin men dressed in white cotton pyjamas came into the room to consult with the supervisor – a hugely fat monster who sat immobile behind his desk. He would give everyone a few seconds, look at their note, stamp or sign their paperwork, exchange a few words. He was like a spider sitting at the centre of a vast web. I wasn’t sure how to approach him, how to interrupt the constant flow of people. Nobody seemed to notice me, so I just stood there and watched. Time seemed to stand still.
– How can I be of service? the fat man asked, without looking up.
– I would like to get the next train to Delhi, but the ticket office says they are sold out. They also said if I came to the supervisor perhaps you could find me a ticket.
– Who on earth told you that? These Ticket Wallahs are acting very cheekily. They will have to be punished. If the tickets are sold out they are sold out. There is nothing I can do. Tell me please, where are you from?
– I am from Scotland.
– Ah, Scotland. I am very fond of your Scottish whisky. I don’t suppose you are carrying any on your person?
– Well you can just stand there for a while and we will see what developments arise.
Eventually the penny dropped and I realised he was waiting for a bribe. I had never bribed anyone in my life and I had no idea how to do it. Isn’t it illegal? Maybe he would report me and have me thrown in jail? More time passed and I knew the Delhi train was about to leave. Desperation drove me on and I fumbled around in my money-belt and pulled out a Scottish five pound note, went up to him and said:
– I would like to give you this.
– What on earth is this?
– A Scottish five pound note.
– And what am I supposed to do with it?
– You can exchange it for ten rupees.
– That is not a great sum of money.
– It’s a gesture of my appreciation.
– I beg your pardon.
– I want to show my appreciation for getting me a ticket on the train to Delhi, which I simply must catch.
– I see. It’s urgent is it. Well, it all boils down to the same thing in the end. This train or the next one?
He barked orders to one of the nearby Ticket Wallahs and within minutes a ticket was produced, more money was exchanged and I was escorted across the station by a cheery old man in a white pyjama suit. He indicated a third class carriage that was packed to bursting point. There was no way that I would be able to get on there, but he shouted an order, an opening was made in the crowd and I squeezed through the railway carriage to the compartment.
It wasn’t the usual railway compartment with six individual seats, it was a sleeping compartment with three levels of beds on one side and three on the other. They weren’t beds with mattresses, they were simply hard wooden surfaces, like shelves in a store room. People were crammed into every available inch of space, there were faces in front of me, above me and even below in the narrow space under the bottom bunk. There must have been over thirty people in there and all of them were staring at me. Indians can stare at you all day and I always appreciated the absence of hostility. They seemed interested in everything: my clothes, my rucksack, my movements, anything I took out of my pocket. They had welcomed me in and I felt safe. I leaned forward onto my rucksack, which was standing on the floor, and immediately fell asleep.
When I woke up the train was moving and my fellow passengers were still staring at me. Time passed slowly. I had a book to read and a diary to fill in – every day I wrote one page – but the others had nothing to do but stare. Then I pulled out a packet of Shag tobacco and rolled a cigarette. There was a murmur of excitement in the crowd and they moved a bit closer. Each of my movements was scrutinised but it didn’t bother me. I finished rolling the cigarette, handed it to the person sitting in front of me and then lit a match. He was delighted and he puffed away happily. The others had become agitated with excitement and they all wanted a puff – but they didn’t ask me for more, they asked him to pass it round, which he did. This little act of sharing sealed our friendship.
I felt protected by this group and when I squeezed my way through to the toilet I didn’t think twice about leaving my rucksack with this group of poor Indians. I trusted them and knew that if anybody even touched my bag the others would have lynched him. When we arrived in Delhi I met a serious German couple who described how they had chained their rucksacks to themselves as they slept on the top bunk – but still their stuff had been stolen. I wondered if trusting people was the key to having a safe and stress free journey.
At every station we stopped at skinny old men in loincloths would stride up and down the platform swinging a huge aluminium kettle in one hand and a pile of tiny cups in the other. Gup Dee! they would shout. Gup Dee! Gup Dee! Gup Dee! These were the Chai Wallahs and they would appear whenever the train stopped. I crowded up to the barred window of our compartment, held out one rupee coin and was given a beautiful hand-made clay cup, full of hot milky tea. It was delicious, very sweet with a hint of cardamom. Best cup of tea I’ve ever tasted, I thought. I carefully handed back the precious clay cup, assuming I was doing the old man a favour as he could use it for the next customer, but he threw it down onto the tracks with a look of contempt as if I had given him a piece of rubbish. This was their form of disposable cup.
India doesn’t look very big on the map – especially if you compare it to Africa – but when you cross it by railway you start to realise how vast it really is. It took over 24-hours to reach Delhi and another day to cross the northern plains to reach the border of Nepal. By this time I had developed a sense of momentum and wasn’t hanging around in every city I came across. After Delhi I started hitchhiking on trucks that were so overloaded that they would swing from side to side like ships at sea, and motorbikes, jeeps and cars that had been designed in the 1950s. Soon enough I reached Nepal.
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. It was about a journey that happened in 1986 and 1987. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at email@example.com (or post a short comment under this article)..