Wednesday, February 07, 2007 India India

Popping down to the station to buy a ticket

Next morning, the driver from the travel agent turned up at 09:00. We sent him packing again. We spent the rest of the day taking advantage of the flat-rate internet in our room, looking at our options for tours of the north of India.

The following day, having failed to persuade the Indian Railways website to let us book our tickets online, we were ready to walk to the station and buy some tickets. Our first tour will be from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, then to Jaipur for a couple of days, then back to Delhi. This is the famous 'Golden Triangle' route. As we walked past reception on the way out of the hotel, the guy behind the desk called us back. He then dialled a number on his phone and handed it to Glenn. It was Mr Big—he had obviously told the hotel to call him the moment we surfaced. Glenn informed him that with his constant pestering he had blown what little chance he had ever had of getting any money from us, and put the phone down. We went outside and started walking to the station.

The station is about 1500 metres from the hotel. We used to live about this far from our local station in the UK, and walking there, buying a ticket and walking back took a total of around 35 minutes. In Delhi it is not the same. You don't 'go for a walk' in Delhi, you run the gauntlet. You have to dodge excrement and touts at every turn. You cannot walk on the pavements because they are completely blocked by stalls, vehicles, and rotting rubbish. So you walk down the middle of the road, along with everybody else. Then you nearly get run over by motorbikes and rickshaws. The pedal-cycle rickshaws are the worst because you don't hear them coming, and being tricycles they are wider at the back than the front. When you suddenly become aware of a rickshaw driver alongside you, you have to remember that he has three wheels not two, and dive to the opposite side very quickly, or you will get a pooh-covered wheel over your ankle. However in the narrow streets of the old town, where our hotel is, ducking in any direction is often impossible.

The stench of rotting garbage is overpowering. Every so often the garbage smell is replaced by that of stale urine. The residents build fires in the street for cooking on, using whatever comes to hand for fuel, i.e. rubbish. So the third smell which we will remember Delhi by is the acrid fumes of burning plastic.

Getting a GPS lock in the narrow streets was impossible, and we didn't have a detailed map with us, so we basically just had to keep walking in as near a straight line as possible until we came to the edge of the crazy melee. Eventually we emerged into the wider streets of New Delhi, from where it was relatively easy to find the station. We needed to find the 'International Tourist Bureau', which is located on the first floor of the main building, from where we could book our tickets with English speaking staff away from the unbelievable crowds in the main part of the station.

We had read up on the process of buying train tickets at New Delhi station in the Lonely Planet. The following is what it says:

Train stations also attract rapacious tricksters who feed off the tourist traffic. At the New Delhi train station touts may try to stop you from booking tickets at the upstairs (1st-floor) International Tourist Bureau and divert you to one of the (overpriced and often unreliable) travel agencies over the road. Make the assumption that the office is never closed (outside official opening hours), isn't being renovated, and hasn't shifted. Other tricksters may insist your ticket needs to be stamped (for a hefty fee payable to them) before it's valid—another scam. Others may try to convince wait-listed passengers that there's a charge to check their reservation status—don't fall for it. Once out of the station, avoid overpriced conveyance by heading for the car park's prepaid autorickshaw booth.

We couldn't see a building with a first floor anywhere, but it looked like we were at the back of the station. The station has several large overbridges so we climbed the stairs to head over to the front. From the bridge, we still couldn't see a building with anything looking like a first floor. We continued for a short way and came to an airport-style security gate which we had to walk through. A lot of Indians were ignoring it and walking around the edge—there were just too many people streaming through for everyone to pass through the gate. The security man in his brown uniform at the gate didn't seem at all bothered, so we casually walked around the gate. We were carrying the camera, GPS etc, which always set off the beeper, and we didn't want the hassle of being searched. The security guard didn't flinch, but another guy, casually dressed, standing next to the gate pointed at us and called us over. "Tickets please." We explained that we didn't have a ticket because we were trying to get to the International Tourist Bureau to buy some. "Ah, no problem—come with me." He pointed out of a nearby window at a construction site underneath the bridge. "That's where the bureau used to be, but it is being rebuilt. It has moved outside the station. Don't worry, it's not far. Do you have a map?" We opened the Lonely Planet at the map page for New Delhi. He pointed out the location of the 'Delhi Tourism and Transport Development Corporation' on the map and told us that the bureau had moved in there. He pointed us back out the way we had come, past the security guard, and told us to make sure we weren't ripped off by a rickshaw driver. "Don't pay more than 10 Rupees, it's only a minute away." He then shook our hands and wished us well.

He nearly got away with it. Let's analyse what happened in detail.

  • He was standing right next to a bona-fide security man, giving him an air of legitimacy.
  • He stopped us on the pretense of asking to see our tickets, then offered help when we said we needed to buy some.
  • There really was a building being constructed right below us.
  • We couldn't see a building with a first floor, or any signs for the International Tourist Bureau anywhere.
  • He directed us to an official government agency, even circling it on our map.
  • He made no attempt to force us into a rickshaw of his choosing.

He, and his friend who was mingled in the crowd at the bottom of the stairs, blew it when the friend approached us as we emerged from the station. He said "Autorickshaw? Where are you going? Only 10 Rupees." We have taken enough autorickshaws to know that the starting price is rarely less than 100 Rupees. What a coincidence that we came across our first honest rickshaw driver just moments after being told that we needed a 10 Rupee rickshaw! We said no thanks, and stopped to have a think.

The uniformed security guard must be in on it. We guess he receives a small fee every time the tout manages to turn a tourist around. Presumably we would have been taken to a travel agent with a strangely similar name to that of the Delhi Tourism and Transport Development Corporation, from where we would have paid too much for train tickets that either were not valid, or were for a lower class seat or a slower train than the one we wanted. Either way we were stunned that we had nearly fallen for a scam that we were fully prepared for, and which happened exactly as described! We did an about turn and walked back over the bridge as we had originally planned. It still took us another ten minutes to find the International Tourist Bureau, despite the fact that it was occasionally signed. There really is no effort to make it visible. At the foot of the stairs to the first floor, in a dark corridor, we saw a sign containing essentially the same message as the quote from the Lonely Planet above. Why is this sign just outside the bureau, at a point which you can only reach by successfully getting past the tricksters, instead of being on a huge poster at the station entrance?! You have to wonder if the whole damn station is in on the scam.

The International Tourist Bureau is like a calm oasis. It has seats, it doesn't stink, it is quiet and you can have some personal space. We briefly thought about staying there for the rest of the day. It wasn't long before we had booked five train tickets: Delhi to Agra, Agra to Jaipur, Jaipur to Delhi, Delhi to Amritsar and Amritsar to Delhi. This would give us a week's tour in two hops from Delhi. We now had to re-enter the melee below us.

For some inexplicable reason, we decided to walk back to the hotel. We much prefer walking over taking a cab usually, but in Delhi, 'usually' does not apply. We had spent every Rupee on the train tickets so we needed an ATM, and we had passed (and GPS-marked) one on the way to the station. We used this to justify walking all the way back. On the way, it started to rain. We normally don't mind a little rain, but this was no ordinary rain, it was black rain. Our shirts were soon stippled with black spots. The pooh in the street was now in fully liquid form, and passing vehicles were splashing it onto our trousers. When we eventually got back to the room after spending a long time walking in circles unable to find it, we washed all our clothes and decided to hole up in the room until the morning, when we will be getting the hell out of this place.

In all, that 35 minute stroll to the station to buy a couple of tickets had taken us nearly four hours.