A Farbound.Net Review.

Take your everyday bus. Remove the seats inside. Fit in some metal bunks. Then install a powerful air-conditioner and you’ve got yourself a classic version of the air conditioned sleeper.

While the design of the sleeper varies from country to country, with some highly aesthetically manufactured ones roaming the roads of the U.K. and China, the fundamental philosophy remains the same: you get to travel horizontally and not vertically. That’s what the sleeper is for.

Now, let’s pretend you like to book your passage for Katra in Jammu (India) on a sleeper without having stepped on-board one as yet. It is a 633 kilometer stretch and you want to reach your destination comfortably. Here’s a prediction on how it might progress.

If you are used to the spacious passenger cabin of the Volvo with its 180 degree view and the cushy reclining seat that can make you feel like you are travelling in a glass bubble, the sleepers that operate on the Delhi-Katra route will come across as a shocker.

A double shocker if you think these ones are anything like the Jumbocrusier or the Megabus gold running on the roads of England. On the outside the Delhi-Katra sleeper might look spacious but the interior outfitted with metal bunks make it compact and claustrophobic. Almost like someone shrunk a train boogie to fit the road.

The bus has more metal to it than you find in a gym. A long narrow aisle barely enough to walk straight with a bag in hand stretches to the very end. Flanking it on both sides are the sleeping compartments made of metal. These are positioned one above the other with a short iron ladder. When you are standing on the aisle all you get to see is metal walls on either sides, if the doors of the bed compartments are shut tight.

“Apparently the manufacturers of this particular version of the sleeper like to discourage people from using the seats. Even if there are a few present, they are uptight and uncomfortable. Secondly not all the vehicles are built to uniform specifications”.

Enroute to Vaishnodevi, Katra, a private managed sleeper bus stops at a local eatery.If on the outside the sleeper bus looks spacious inside its claustrophobic, dimly lit and tightly packed.

For instance the leg space depends on the bus you are in. Sometimes you can get lucky to find decent leg space and other times you will find yourself stretching your legs out sideways on the aisle. The metal roof overhead the seats isn’t every high on account of it being the bottom of a sleeping chamber. Any bump on the road and there is a chance you will be banging your head against the roof.

The front seats are no better than the ones behind them. Instead of having to see the wending road right in front as you can in a Volvo you’ll be spending your journey staring at a metal wall, sometimes with a live cockroach racing across its surface.

The sleeper scores on account of its air conditioner that can chill you quickly to the bone and naturally its sleeping compartments. These two elements offer you something the Volvo doesn’t on the Indian road: The opportunity to snuggle in with a blanket and sleep your way to your destination. But you’ll have to carry the blanket with you. Private operators operating on his route will not be supplying you with one. What you will be provided with is a pillow and a thin mattress that makes for a hard bed.

“Each bunk is fitted with a rack for personal belongings and a vent that lets out the air conditioned air. In summers when the air conditioner is on full blast, it is not uncommon for passengers in sweaters to be shouting at the bus staff demanding it to turned off at once. The enclosed space, with the sliding door shut, can feel like the inside of a freezer”.

The short straight iron ladder (visible) is to clamber into the sleeping bunks on top. The aisle, narrow and barely enough to walk straight with baggage is dimly lit at night which many may find uncomfortable and claustrophobic. The driver’s cabin is separated from the passenger section by a metal door – once the bus rolls, the door is shut.

The compartments though not much to look at from the aisle, do offer you a lot of privacy. Once you clamber inside, you can slide shut the metal door that has a thin window panel right on top. It’s too high for any peeing tom to pry into your private life. Honeymooners and enamoured couples aren’t the only ones that dig them. Travelers looking to sleep undisturbed do to.

The sleeper also performs well as a make do long distance ambulance. One vehicle ferried a bed ridden man with a tube stuck to his throat and a urine disposable by his side from Delhi to the Jammu bus stop, that lies enroute to the town of Katra. The man lay straight and motionless in one of the sleeping bunks on the ground level attended by two friends.

The major drawback of the sleeping bunks is if you have booked the top chambers. The ones near the floor are easy to get into. To get into the ones on top you need to use that straight iron ladder to climb into a small square opening. Difficult if you are overweight, have arthritis or aged.

The windows of the sleeper, even if nowhere close to the huge bay windows the Volvo sports have an advantage, you can open them unlike that of the Volvo. When the air conditioner is off, this feature will let you breathe in the fresh morning air as your bus climbs from the Jammu bus stop for the highlands of Katra.

In the sleeper, the passenger cabin is separated from the driver’s cabin by a glass and metal door. This in the case of the Jamna, a private bus company, that operates the Delhi-Katra route opens from the outside with no door knob present on the inside. The division of the cabin is convenient for smokers who can light up a cigarette sitting next to the driver, and without getting the rest of the passengers inhaling second hand smoke.

“Sleepers are mostly managed by private companies.Their official run time is late in the evening with some starting their roll as late as after 10 p.m. They are also notorious for delays and long stops at high traffic passenger points such as major bus stops”.

A lane of seats stashed away under two sleeping compartments offers a cramped seating arrangement. The narrow aisle in the centre runs to every end of the bus. Short iron ladders (visible in the photo) lets passengers climb into the sleeping bunks on top.

State run tourism transports are time bound. They leave from the departure point, pick you up if only you have informed the office in advance, make their scheduled stops and drop you off at your destination (see Farbound.Net snippet on Manali Mail: Running on time most of the time). Private buses, especially ones on this route, operate in a more leisure manner that might make you impatient.

A speculated reason behind this is that it is tougher for private companies to maintain their fleet and still bring in an income. Unlike the state tourism departments that are financed by the government, private transports have to pay every penny that goes towards maintenance, fuel and sundry expenses, straight out of their pockets.

One particular sleeper stood around in the parking lot waiting for last minute passengers then eased out of the parking lot to wait for more passengers. Private managed sleepers will also pick up passengers from the road if the negotiated price is to their liking. A man, possibly a trader, with a heavy load of merchandise and not enough money to book a bunk or seat, used the narrow aisle as a bed till his destination.

The bus they purchase from manufacturers are not top rated always and to whip up a profit, they cater to a market, tourism buses don’t touch. This primarily include passengers who visit the bus stop directly or land up in known passenger points. If you hail one enroute with baggage in hand, there are chances with bunks or seats to spare, a private run sleeper will welcome you on board.

Sleepers leaving Katra for Delhi, will stop for a long duration at the Jammu bus stop. This is a major transit point and a good opportunity for the vehicles to fill up on passengers bound for places like Panipat in Haryana or Delhi itself.

The Jamna stood at this bus stop till about 10 p.m.,filling up on more wayfarers then it did at Katra. To make up for the lost time, the driver cut short the schedule dinner break but still made it back to Delhi before 8 a.m. Wayfarers without advanced bookings often negotiate the price of their passage.

“Reshuffling is a frequent occurrence on board sleepers on this route. Wayfarers getting on board are allowed to use the bunks if they are empty at a lower price. If perchance more passengers step on board paying the full amount, they are asked to shift. This is more prevalent with the use of the sleeping compartments”.

A good way to get around this is to book your seat or bunk in advance instead of walking to the bus stop at the last minute. Travel portals like MAKE MY TRIP and GOIBIBO gives you a list of bus operators working this route. You can contact them directly and book your seat or bunk -depending on availability or in advance.

The operators can also give you a more accurate information regarding the exact place and time of departure – which a travel agent or booking agent might not be able to do (see Farbound.Net review on how to plan your trip better: Help yourself out).

An usual practice that might alarm travelers looking to travel on board the Delhi-Katra sleepers is that on some vehicles, the staff instead of checking and letting the passengers keep the tickets will hold on to them. Wayfarers getting on board midway are also unlikely to be handed out a receipt of their fare.

The iron sidewall is shorter inside the sleeping bunk compared to that of the seats. Thin mattresses spread over the metal bottom makes for a hard bed. But once the sliding doors are shut, passengers get as much privacy as is possible on a bus. Each compartment has racks for belongings and a vent for the air conditioned air – that can turn the interior into a freezer.

“Privileged hospitality isn’t something you should step on board expecting. The rough and tough crew are not schooled in etiquette and proper conduct as their counterparts in European countries or for that matter airlines and star graded hotels”.

They come from modest homes and practically live on the road dealing with other rough and tough people associated with their trade. They will deliberately not be rude towards you but their approach and mannerism might appear aggressive and not to your liking.

Overall, the Delhi-Katra sleepers are pretty good if your travel standards are not fixated on luxury liners or the Volvo, you don’t mind the unscheduled delays and can do without the zero aesthetic design sense of the interior,and in some cases unhygienic interior. As passenger transports, the sleepers will get you to your destination safe and sound. Drivers are pretty experienced and rarely speed like that of the Volvo. More over the sleepers on the Indian roads have a negligible record of road accidents as their relatives in China.


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