“Ideally, I should have been taking that Rajdhani back to Mumbai right now.”
I found myself thinking out aloud at the New Delhi railway station while waiting for the indicator to point us to the right platform when my friend quipped, “Not ideally…” She had a point but I felt obligated to justify myself so I said, “Yeah, what I meant is that’s what a normal person would do!” But my friend was not ready to let me have it my way, “Normal is not ideal for you.”
I had to concede and right then as if on cue the indicator signalled us to make our way to platform number 16. We were boarding the Delhi – Dibrugarh Rajdhani Express.
In June 2015, I had just completed a six month assignment during which I had been making my way through the heartland of India meeting non-profits [Read: Making travel count: Taking Technology To The Grassroots]. But now with work wrapped up, I was meant to be homeward bound. This was the longest I had ever been away. And yet a Delhi – Mumbai Rajdhani did not seem appealing or exciting after the 20 train journeys I had done in the past six months!
|Passing by the world in technicolour|
Plotting and scheming
That’s why in May when I was in Vijayawada – and the Sun was at its infernal best – I sought inspiration from webpages bookmarked and buried away uncategorized long long ago. Who would have thought that all those hours of poring over wanderlust stoking websites would actually be revisited someday? After all, isn’t a bookmark now almost synonymous with never-going-to-be-looked-at-again?
And what was I (re)looking at? Webpages describing scenic train routes across India. I have lusted over and populated mental notes about train journeys I have wanted to undertake for a while now. This could be because growing up when I was not being hustled into the jeep and then Padmini Fiat my dad once drove, I remember running through the many coaches of the train. Why? Because identifying your coach from the outside on the platform was so passé!
My earliest memory from the non-smartphone era was of being amused by a ticket-checker (TC) who sat me down and helped me list out every station between Mysore and Mangalore in my notebook on a family holiday during the summer break at school!
|Somewhere in the Deccan|
Implementation mode activated
So back to the present, I wanted to make this journey a memorable one. The source would still be New Delhi with the destination as Mumbai and the only twist in the tale would be the route! All that that I had to do was to join the dots between my journeys. And as long as I had time and information at my disposal nothing else mattered.
So after carefully studying the railway timetable and staying logged into the IRCTC website to know the actual duration of every single journey, I had decided that I would combine as many train journeys as I could at one go. As it turned out I was adding 7 more train journeys to the 20 I’d already completed in the past six months and where the Delhi-Mumbai Rajdhani would have me home in 16 hours, I would now take 18 days!
Here’s a dekko into what experiences these journeys turned out to be.
The train that —
- …one can go farthest into the north-east with
The New Delhi – Dibrugarh Town Rajdhani Express (12436) is a 44 hour train journey that makes its way through 5 states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Nagaland and Assam. En route you will notice that Babugarh and Rampur are real places; not merely something Bollywood conjured up!
The landscape is rife with blink-and-miss sightings of peacocks in groves of mango trees, the Common Man toiling away in brick kilns while buffaloes lounge in ponds when not being made to plough fields. On day two and if you’re playing real close attention you begin to see that banana plantations are to Bihar what tea estates and bamboo plantations are to Assam! And as this is the Rajdhani itself, food is a non-issue.
|Captured on the outskirts of Lucknow en route to Dibrugarh|
- …is currently the longest running train route in the Indian sub-continent
Yes, the Dibrugarh – Kanyakumari Vivek Express (15906), at 81 hours and 40 minutes traversing through seven states, is the longest train journey. It’s a route that takes you from the eastern-most rail-inhabited part of India to its southern-most tip.
If there’s any particular segment that had me with my nose pinned against the window, it would be from Furkating Junction until Lumding while still in Assam. Trees with girth so wide it would take 10 people to hold hands around it, the jungles are untouched and un-manicured providing such respite to both eyes and lungs shrivelled from the dense smog-ridden existence in the city. But that gradually changes once the train crosses Guwahati – for depending on the proximity to a road, towns around the rail tracks are accordingly ‘developed’! It’s a phenomenon that continues all the way to the south.
And you can very well imagine the wide diversity in the food that’s available in the train: chaat (in all its variants), khira, lemon tea, you name it. Why even the tea undergoes all forms of, well, dilution and concentration!
This journey more than any other reaffirmed how much of a seemingly voyeuristic experience train travel can truly be. Needless to say, I was impressed when the train completed its journey on time, without a minute’s delay.
|Chugging away from the north east, tea gardens win you over in the north east|
|Stopover at Kanyakumari to catch the sunrise|
- …chugs along India’s first sea bridge
Incidentally Pamban Bridge was also the longest sea bridge until the Mumbai’s Bandra-Worli Sea Link opened in 2010. This rail bridge over the Palk Strait however is 2065 meters long and was opened in 1914!
The Kanyakumari-Rameshwaram Express (22622) was an overnight train ride so there was no view to really speak of. Though special mention must be made that the Sleeper Class ride was much more comfortable that I could have asked for. While the experience of being aboard when the train chugs through the bridge into Rameshwaram even before day break is surreal itself, do not miss the opportunity to view the rail bridge from the road bridge that runs parallel to it sometime during the day!
|Mind-blown at Pamban|
- …was a detour. And then, another
I experienced Pamban Bridge for a second time on my way out of Rameshwaram later that same night. The same lighthouse light that welcomed us in also bade us goodbye on our way out. In fact that is the only light one can see while on the bridge. My detour journey had to be broken into two: from Rameshwaram to Chennai and then another from Chennai to Bangalore – because there was no direct train to Bangalore City.
- …chugs through the Sea of Milk
The raison d’être behind getting to Bangalore (besides getting some respite from the humidity and catching up with the kith) was primarily to witness the Sea of Milk more famously known as the Dudhsagar Waterfalls in it full monsoon splendour albeit through a train! All trains that pass through Londa in Karnataka make their way through Castle Rock and Kulem stations. The journey is stunning as it takes you through tunnels, smaller waterfalls and the thicket that is the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park. And more so when you are seated at the step near the door! The continuous drizzle pattering down making the forests look greener, the waterfalls heavier and the hill tops mistier is the stuff Wordsworth and Blake wrote poetry about!
But the train really just chugs and chugs quite slowly as the monsoons witness an influx of trekkers keen to pose for a selfie with the train! On a serious note, this has seen an increase in the spate of accidents – leading to loss of limb and life – and one now also finds an almost unnatural police presence armed with walkie-talkies manning the crowds!
|Between being overawed and missing the shot, Dudhsagar was clicked|
- …takes you through the Konkan
The last of my train journeys was train 10104 through the Western Ghats. The Mandovi Express that leaves from Madgaon in Goa in the morning and arrives in Mumbai the night of the same day invites you to ditch your AC ticket and instead opt for the Sleeper Class where you be one with your natural environment! So enchanting are the fields and valleys that you do not reckon how much you had blended into your environs until you’ve gotten off the train reeking like it!
This journey is one for the shutterbugs with the train zooming through overhead bridges overlooking jungles, rivers and sometimes even dwellings! And if there’s any pantry car to swear by for ensuring you won’t spend a single moment not moving your jaw like a cow ruminating it has to be the Mandovi Express.
|How green is my (v)alley is. The Konkan|
Everyone has their own definition of adventure. And everyone has their own preference – air travel, motorcycle road trips, four wheel road trips… I seem to have found mine in train travel. It’s been an experience where, as clichéd as it sounds, the journey has trumped over the many destinations reached. In fact even the duration of my stay in a place was a function of the railway schedule!