We’ve heard lots of intimidating stories about Indian train travel and seen the trains speeding by with people practically falling out the doors and windows of the second class cars that confirmed those stories. Yet we also knew that an Indian train experience was a must, so we decided to get our feet wet on the relatively short trip to Mysore: just under three hours from downtown Bengaluru on the way, and only two hours on the express train home. While we could have opted for a first class car which would have given us our own little room, that didn’t seem so interesting. We also could have selected second class for an authentic experience, but that seemed a bit scary. We chose the AC Chair Car, which has assigned seats, no standing, and air conditioning (as you might have guessed).
When we got to the station about an hour before our train, we were feeling pretty uncertain of what to do. Our tickets weren’t what we would identify as tickets – they were just printed confirmation of the ticket purchase that didn’t state the type of ticket purchased or provide any other clear guidance. There were lots of people gathering on the platform, and we were concerned that if we didn’t act quickly, we might not get seats together. As the train pulled in to the station, we saw cars that said “Chair Car” on the outside. With nothing else to go on, we hustled ourselves onto the nearest chair car and got ourselves seated on a bench seat with space for three to sit. We noticed fans above us rather than air conditioners, but thought maybe “air conditioner” was a euphemism for “fan”. With Tom by the window, one of the last seats taken was the open space next to Melissa. We suspect that most men were reluctant to sit there, and the car was 2/3 male. Once all of the seats were filled, people just kept pressing on until every bit of space was occupied. At this point, we suspected we were in the wrong place, but we didn’t have time or confidence to do anything about it then. No one ever checked tickets, so there was no one official to ask. Despite the crush of people, the tone of the car was happy and friendly. Young men walked through constantly, hawking delicious-smelling food that people gleefully bought and ate. A woman standing in the aisle with her 8-year-old son asked the man next to Melissa to allow him to sit on his lap to eat his samosa. The man agreed, and the child didn’t get up again until the man was ready to get off. The woman then eased into the newly vacant seat and made small talk, including an invitation to her house, while noticeably encroaching on our space. While a bit annoyed by the crush, we were pleased to have Ranganathaswamy, a huge 10th century temple to Vishnu pointed out as we passed. Finally arriving at the Mysore train station, we were happy to find an easy exit and a short walk to our hotel for the weekend.
On the way home, we wanted to try to find our proper seats. While we were proud of managing and enjoying second class seating, we had paid for something else (260 rupees for the AC Chair Car rather than 75 rupees for Second Class) and wanted to experience that too. The problem was that we still just had these uninformative print-outs and no idea how to find out proper car. Problem solved when we spotted the ticket inspectors office. Melissa wandered in and sheepishly mumbled that we didn’t know how to find our car, and the ticket inspector graciously explained that the random-seeming numbers on our print-out actually indicated our car number and our seat numbers. We had actual seats waiting for us! The trip home was an entirely different experience in comfortable seats with plentiful leg room and powerful air conditioning. It was also different in terms of the human connection (people chatted with the people they knew) and the food (we were given water and mango juice, but no food vendors wandered through our car at all). For that short trip, the difference in price is just $1.15 vs. $3.97. We’d probably opt for the AC Chair Car again for a longer trip, but good to know that the second class option is entirely tolerable, if a little crowded and smelly.