The train lets out a long, low horn – not a whistle – and creeps forward, a bass-like thrum in its forward berths, the clack of track below. Gurgaon says the sign out the tinted window: we’re near Delhi station now. The outskirts, the suburbs, the slums.

Crumbling brick buildings. Burning debris. Mounds of plastic refuse.

Near train stations and railways has always been where the poorest of the poor live – where the noise is worst, where the smoke is worse still, where the offal from countless trains runs off and kills the already sparse vegetation and poisons the animals and children.

The dilapidated shanties of the poor greet us after a 19-hour journey from the desert of the northwest – just as they greeted us in Bangkok, just as they would in Chicago or Denver. Still, in India it feels worse. More permanent. Suffering that’s immutable, a crushing, undeniable, permanent fact of life for millions.

We hear about strikes but don’t see any: industry continues unabated, unabashed along the rail. Armies of men in collared shirts and pants stand squinting in the sun, shovels in hand and heads wrapped in rags, sweating through hard labor: the laying of another track, iron, concrete and rock: more track for more passengers, more freight. Evenly spaced rhombuses of granite rock broken small litter the railside: a lot of work to be done. India has a billion people or so the census estimates.

Alongside the men is another big production, more patient, women shaping and drying discs of manure in dirt yards, piling them high: towers and pyramids of shit. One resource that will never fail in a country that reveres cows.

We roll on. Bijwasan says the black-lettered yellow sign, but we don’t stop. This is an express train.

The shanties lean against one another in corrugated commiseration. The cows and dogs and pigs busy themselves foraging amid the rubble and rubbish. Shopkeepers and housekeepers shoo them away. Bricks fall from swung sledgehammers: constant reclamation.

Train travel is the way to see India and comprehend, maybe, partially, this state of flux. It is a country in the throes of change. There are visions of great beauty, and power, in places inaccessible to all but the rail.

Stopped randomly between remote stations, we watch a twilight cricket match, children running across a sandy pitch in the dusty dusk, and a sudden wicket! – Maybe. Followed by a celebration worthy of the World Cup. Later from our tinted window in the early morning we see a trio of women in bright salwar kameez: gauzy yellow, orange and white moving through tall grass in one of countless empty fields outside Delhi. In the train station when we finally disembark, stunned momentarily in the hazy buzz of the capital, a pair of peacocks strut by. The Urban Peacock.

The biggest Brahma bulls have brightly colored horns, and beads and painted haunches and necklaces. The best and tallest, the great white oxen with symmetric horns, long legs, and a proud bearing, pull carts down busy thoroughfares, their noses high. It’s good to be a cow here, except having to eat garbage.

After 19 hours we’re a little dazed. We lose our bearings and end up boarding another train. Five hours later we land in Haridwar, north of the capital, a holy city near the source of the Ganges River. It is night.