Jodhpur: It's Sunday morning. The Bhagat ki Kothi railway station here is ready to receive its weekly train from Pakistan. Stall owners outside are stocked with food and drinks of all hues and tints; they know the 250-odd passengers must be hungry and thirsty.
Unlike the better known Samjhauta Express that links Lahore and Delhi, the Thar Express -- named after the vast expanse of desert on both sides of the frontier -- is being termed a "torture train" by frequent travellers. Connecting the desert town of Jodhpur to Sindh province in Pakistan, thirst is not the only problem for the passengers here - the more pressing issue, they say, is harassment by customs officials.
There are two broad categories of people travelling to India from Pakistan. Those who come for pilgrimage and those on personal visits. It is generally the latter who are at the receiving end, they say, of the customs.
The journey itself is no easy one.
Leaving Karachi at 11 p.m. every Friday, the train's scheduled arrival in Jodhpur is 9.30 p.m. Saturday.
But thanks to marathon customs checks on both sides of the border (passengers say it is more intense in India), the train doesn't make it to Jodhpur before 7 a.m. Sunday - a good 10 hours late.
That makes it a 32-hour journey for a distance of no more than 700 km, which should not consume more than 12 hours normally.
Why the delay?
In the words of harried passengers who spoke to IANS mainly on the condition of anonymity, Indian officials strip open each and every bag "in search of articles on which custom duty could be levied".
Fateh Singh, half of whose family lives in Pakistan, describes one such incident on his recent return to India.
"There was a woman coming to India to get her three daughters married. The customs confiscated all their gift packs, saris, jewellery, gold and asked for a 35 percent tax to get it freed... How can you expect someone to pay that kind of money?"
Added Raghvir Singh Sodha, who migrated to Jodhpur from Pakistan only a decade ago:
"Though the government gives visa extension to tourists for marriages, when they come here, they confiscate their wedding trousseau."
Rajputs often travel to India for bride/groom hunting as most Rajputs living in Pakistan are part of extended families -- and they can't marry among themselves.
Sodha narrates another incident.
"A man was migrating to India after selling off his land in Pakistan. His Rs.8 lakh worth of gold was taken away at the customs and he got back gold worth only Rs.3.5 lakh after 35 percent custom duty and a penalty of 15 percent. Now, how will he start life anew?"
Then there's Khoob Chand who alleges that his relative's 'mangalsutra' was cut open to see if it was 24-carat gold.
"The tax is on the gold you carry, it is not to be applied on the jewellery you wear. Do they do the same thing at airports?" Khoob Chand rued to IANS. "It's only because we are poor and helpless that they do this."
A journey from Jodhpur to Karachi costs around Rs.450. For six months, the Indian train crosses over the border and the Pakistani train does that for the other six months.
The train's scheduled departure from Bhagat ki Kothi is Friday 10.30 p.m.; passengers are told to assemble at the station-turned fortress at 9 p.m, but the train rarely departs before 1.30 a.m.
There is no water or food supply in the train; the luggage is kept in a separate coach. After loading passengers from Jodhpur, the train does not make any single halt until Munabao, the Indian checkpost near the border. Though there are food stalls at the Munabao station, they run out of stock in no time.
Add to that the dry desert heat and the intense security checks and it is clear why the passengers feel violated. The immigration checks, the passengers say, are more orderly and efficient.
While these checks go on, the train changes platform for onward journey. Once in Pakistani territory, passengers from India shift to the Pakistani train.
The train service, suspended during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, reopened service in February 2006, making it the second bilateral rail link.
Passengers say the situation was not always like this. "It has worsened over the last one year," says Sodha. Some cases of smuggling of fake currency notes had been reported in the past.