Theft prevention on a train ride through India

Train station blur

Boarding a train in Varanasi bound for Agra, we feared for the very worst.  Travelling with expensive sporting equipment (paragliders) meant that our exposure was high.  It was our first public transport experience in India, and the stress of transition always brings out anxiety.  But it turned out to be much better than we had prepared for.  Our train experiences in China were miserable due to lack of airflow and the propensity for smokers in the confined cabins, so that an 8 hour train ride was choked in a haze of second hand smoke.  The simple sleeper cars in India, on the other hand, had ample airflow from the open windows, and no passenger dared smoke a cigarette in the cabin.

Breathing comfortably, I was still nervous about theft.  But I came up with a system that gave me confidence and allowed me to get some sleep on the overnight trip: I tied a piece of webbing to our bags, then pushed them under the bed so that the webbing was in the back and not visible.  I then routed the webbing around the backside of the bed, and tied it to my arm so that it was taught.  This would do nothing to protect from a stealthy puncture-and-plunder, but the small valuables targeted by such theft were in a small personal bag inside my silk sleeping sack.  However in the case of someone trying to make off with an entire bag – a common enough horror story on these trains – they would unknowingly be giving a sharp tug to my arm to wake me up.  Proud of my new little system, I got some good Z’s as the madness of the Indian landscape rolled past in the dark.

In the morning, all gear and baggage accounted for, we sipped delicious cups of sweet chai as the train lumbered in to the city.  Watching the city landscape develop, we had our first encounter with the Morning Poo.  The small tracts of land that surround the rail lines constitute some of the only un-inhabited space in the densely populated urban centers.  In a country often lacking the infrastructure of general sewage, such a space provides a very valuable purpose: poo ground!  Literally for kilometers as we slowly rolled in to the cities, an endless series of waking locals were out for the Morning Poo.  Tiptoeing carefully through the minefields to select an appropriate spot, they would relax in the Hindu-squat slowly working out the previous day’s curry.  The predominant orientation of the squatter was pointed towards the train, so that they squatted watching us as we watched them working on the poo.  India is no place for the faint.

When we finally arrived in Agra, we battled through a swarm of solicitors, beggars, rickshaw drivers, and rif-raf to find a taxi to our hotel.  Collapsing in our new room, we rejoiced at yet another successful transfer, taking brief refuge from the turmoil outside.

Into the depths of river country and back out again: Another bus ride

This entry got away from me.  Details mixed together in time so that my accuracy of place was distorted.  The whole story proved itself to be false – broke down – and was deleted.  Now I’m only left with images, clear mental snapshots picked out of the blur of a spectator’s window:

Another bus ride, driving out of the golden light of Lithang on a crisp morning

Huge mountain passes over 5600 meters (18,370ft) so that our heads were dipped in to the clouds

Cresting the pass

High plateaus covered in a million boulders and blanketed with a thick soup of fog

Boulder plateau in the fog

down DOWN DOWN in to the depths of river country in the canyons below

descending in to river country

A small bridge-town in the deep bottom of the canyon; the mighty river Yalong; another intersection of the ancient lands of Tibet and the modern capitalist engine of China


A transition to desert terrain as we climb out the other side

More noble Tibetan houses, not white-washed as before but now dressed in bare desert stone

Khampa houses dressed in desert stone

Returning again to high alpine valleys with steep smooth grassy mountains all around

A quick flash of Gongga Shan, 3rd highest peak in the world outside Himalaya/Karakoram, as the steep valleys come briefly in to alignment

Gongga Shan (Mount Gongga) in the background

Eagles climbing thermals and soaring the valley

‘The Lovesong of Kangding’ written on the hill in white stones

‘The Lovesong of Kangding’ written in stone, near the pass

One final summit before beginning the descent down to the city of Kangding in the deep cleft of the mountains below

Kangding City

And at last the Zhilam Hostel in Kangding – a true respite and sanctuary from which to re-organize

The back road to Sichuan Province

The morning of departure for our backcountry bus tour in to Sichuan dawned dreary and raining.  The bus station was a swarm of confusion, and to my despair the conductor gave no option but to load my glider bag on the roof.  Fortunately it was wrapped in 5 garbage bags inside of the duffel, so begrudgingly I handed it up and did my best to forget it.  We took our seats and stuffed our heads out the window, gasping for fresh air against the cloud of cigarette smoke inside.  When the bus was finally loaded full we pulled out of the station and around the corner, and then parked in front of a small crowd of people in the street.  Immediately bags of rice, stacks of soft-drink pallets, and bundles of blankets and goods were shuffled onboard the already-packed bus, followed by a second capacity of new passengers scrambling for a bit of space on top of of supplies.  We rattled off down the road and everyone slowly jostled in to place.

pit stop

The BANG of an exploding tire an hour up the road signaled that it was time for a rest-stop, so we unloaded to stretch our legs and have a look around.  We were provided with the entertainment of watching a bunch of men with a 40 pound sledge hammer and a 2 meter breaker bar attempt to free the fused lug-nuts from the rim.  As would prove consistent throughout our travels, despite seeming hopeless a solution was soon accomplished and we were back on our way.

As we approached the big mountains we left the pavement behind, then started up steep winding passes.  Near the summit the roads became hopelessly muddy, and eventually we rounded a bend to find ourselves trapped behind another bus that was buried in the mud.

Fully loaded and stuck in the mud

Again things seemed hopeless as we wrestled to free the bus, carrying rocks from the hillside and dropping them in to the mud to fill up the ruts.  But eventually the bus popped loose and rambled on, which meant it was our turn.  Our driver took the high outside line around the hopelessly deep ruts, surfing his wheels along the slimy edge of a precipitous tumble down the banks into the abyss!  He cleaned it, and as we descended off the other side of the pass the beauty of the experience overpowered our fear and our sore behinds.  We found ourselves completely in awe.  The scale of the mountains was bigger than anything I had yet experienced, with a vibration and beauty to match.  The noble Khampa style Eastern Tibetan houses stood like castles perched in the vertical realm of the steep mountainsides, and were also gathered together in pools of golden light in the valley bottoms.  Inside the bus you could feel the collective change in rhythm from the passengers as we moved further from the busy world of China and deeper in to the sanctuary of the mountains.  We were going home.

Khampa houses in the valley bottom