15 years ago the train travel experience was comparable between China and India, both vast countries with long distances to cover in mainly uncomfortable trains. Obtaining tickets was a hassle in either country with China being too rude to sell tickets to foreigners and India too bogged down in bureaucracy to sell tickets to anybody.
China’s skyrocketing development not only becomes visible in its changed urban cityscape but even more so in its re-invented train network. The diesel (and steam in some places) engine from 15 years ago are replaced by electric high-speed bullet trains that are comfortable, bullet fast and spit free. Whist Germany was debating every minute aspect of the maglev train, China built one (thus proving its uselessness) Buying a ticket is not the dreaded experience anymore. With the bullet trains came new high-tech train stations, contemporary architectural mega structures comparable to the magnificent train stations in Europe at the midle of the 19th century when humankind entered the machine age and train stations were places of worship for steam engines. Modern Chinese high-speed train stations worship the 21st century technology.
15 years ago India and China were both a the starting line of a race that saw China taking off and India… not so much.
Buying a train ticket today in India is not much different then buying it 15 years ago. It seems that the same people still work at the same ticket counters. And the train carriages have not seen a new coat of paint in these 15 years either.
I try to get my train tickets firstly from Mumbai to Nasik and then onwards to Aurangabad sorted out at Churchgate train station, a magnificent building celebrating train technology during British colonial times. The booking office is opposite the train station across a busy road that is divided down its middle with a metal barrier (finally a parallel to China). To get to the office building one is to squeeze past another building and a fence and time this squeeze carefully since only one person can squeeze at a time. The wide and inviting entrance is closed off and guarded by machine gun armed guards. So is the little steam engine that is on display, and it is an offense to take a picture of the little engine. The guards lack of humor is proportionate with the size of their gun.
I find the booking office. I find the appropriate booking counter. I find the queue considerate. I find that I have both forgotten a pen and my passport, both items without which booking a train ticket is impossible. Nonetheless, I try, wait in line (with a tad of pushing and showing) and obtain the required forms that will have to be filled out. Nobody has a pen. I have to leave the queue to find somebody with a pen. That found, the form:
‘If you are a medical practitioner please tick () in box’. Easy, no tick.
‘Train No & Name’. I don’t know, I came here to find out, but this is the booking office, not the information office.
‘Class’. I don’t know.
‘No of berth seat’. Does that not depend on class?
‘Concession/Travel authority No’. Pardon?
I give up, not without frustration for having achieved nothing and push the pen onto somebody resembling the man I took it from. Once outside the booking office and past timely squeezing out of the compound and just about to climb over the metal barrier road divider the real pen owner comes chasing after me demanding his pen back. Utter disbelieve upon the realization that he will not be repatriated with his pen clouds his face. The misery the India of 15 years ago spells upon many.
I try to get my train tickets again at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a seriously cool train station and the pinnacle of train station design of its time. The booking office is inside a magnificent side building to the main terminus one floor up. An area is reserved for foreign tourist, and it says on the three u-shape arranged yellow benches ‘foreign tourists only’. Even the apartheid and racist discrimination in India has not changed. One elderly Indian man sits on one of the three comfy yellow benches. Nobody else sits in this segregation cubicle. He waves me over, indicating that here is the window where I will get my tickets. Little does he realize that as long as he loiters in the white man’s sector I will not get any tickets. The ticket official is little pleased. He leaves his cubicle to make the man leave. The man does not want to and points to his feet, most likely indicating that they hurt, then to the benches, most likely indicating that they are much more comfortable to sit on than the stone slabs and floor for the common people. Ticket official man remains undeterred and wants friendly man out of my white land. I try to point out that his presence really posts no conflict for me buying tickets but although this plot is marked as my land I have little to say. The two men argue noisily. Other ticket counter officials leave the shelter of their counters to separate the two but both men are determined to not leave any ground (literally).
Some twenty minutes later I finally get to buy my train tickets, but the man now is moody and the forms need to be filled out. Better not further upset the man, but there are so many questions and so little to hear through the glass partition. I crouch down and angle my ear towards the narrow slit at the counter bottom and hear “what time you want to travel”. Morning. And so on. He finally mumbles the train times and names and notes them down on the form for me to then copy into the form (which, thinking this through, he could have done right away). First train is at six in the morning, he clearly is not in the mood to discuss the wider definition of morning and I am happy to have my tickets.
Needless to say that on the day of departure the 06:15 Tapovan express is delayed to 9:40.