India by night train, with a nice cup of chai

THE McDonald's on New Delhi train station's platform is packed with young Americans queuing for Aloo McTikka burgers but a nearby window doles out the delights of lentils and chapatti for half the wait and a quarter of the price.

Thus armed with dinner, the stage is set for the night train north to Dharamsala, exiled home of the Tibetan living god, the Dalai Lama, and therefore a drawcard for every yoga-loving, om-chanting, fisherman's-pants-wearing, dreadlocked Westerner.

Her name suggests she's not a cannon and the Jammu Mail train lives up to her name. The second-class sleeper is an open affair of double-decker bunks that double as seats in the daytime. It boasts airconditioning, power points and each bed has a brown paper bag containing two sheets and a hand towel. The bag tells me this linen is washed "in an advance mechanised laundry", gives an email address for complaints and wishes me a happy journey.

The passenger list is a real Canterbury Tales brew of folk. There's a young couple from Moscow with their fat-cheeked, milk-white baby. A vast family of Indian diners using my bed as a dinner table. A mid-50s couple from somewhere north of Vancouver, who regale me with train tales of waking up being cuddled by Indian men who thought two-to-a-bunk was a perfectly acceptable use of space. And a Ukrainian coffee fiend who also turns out to be a Master of Darkness.

"I have spent 52 days in a dark room meditating and I want more," says Yuri, the happiest Ukrainian I have ever met. As everyone settles down for bed, we sip sweet tea from the omnipresent chai sellers and he talks of 1980s group energy exchanges, extreme yoga and tantric sex education led by the scandal-prone Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

The Master of Darkness is sleeping in the bunk above me, a silent Indian man in the one opposite and a stocky old Tibetan man, whose wife carefully makes his bed, in the opposite upper bunk. This is no pyjama party; it's sleep with your clothes on, your shoes safely tucked away and your passport on your skin. A shoddy lock and long chain snare my laptop, camera bag, bed and arm: take one, take all.

That night, the silent Indian man proves not so silent and snores raucously, then begins the day with another, less special but equally loud, bodily cacophony, waking me from a heavy sleep.

I stretch my legs, nudging something soft yet impenetrable at the end of my bed. It's the old Tibetan at his morning prayers. He ignores my toe in his ribs and continues his deep, rumbling chant, counting on sandalwood beads.

I flag a cuppa from a passing chai-seller, then stand to see Yuri, on the upper bunk, eyes closed and grooving to the Tibetan's deep "Ommm". The Canadians, super-chirpy in a wholesome, Ned-Flanders, button-down-kinda fashion, check to see that I'm awake and we grab gear and fall out of the train.

Disoriented, I catch a last glimpse of Group Canadia, piled on a bicycle rickshaw, their little man picking up speed. "See you!," their words float on the morning breeze as they pass. "We're travelling in styyyyyyyyyyyyyllllllllllllllle!"

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