Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Meenakshi Redux Part 2: The Metric Goddess

Continued from Part One

Ahead lay the longest possible meter gauge journey by a single train in India – a run of 1148km to Purna spread over 32 hours by the 9769 Meenakshi Express. Settling down cabin C of the solitary 2A coach, we eagerly awaited the start which came 2 minutes past the scheduled departure of 1200hrs.

Our first halt was Kishangarh, and then on we headed towards Phulera (FL) where the first of our three crossings with the opposite Meenakshi took place. Next up was Ajmer and we swept through the suburbs on the famed curve halting briefly at the outer. Since, the Meenakshi carried a full fledged pantry (the only one on MG across IR), we were expecting to be served lunch at Ajmer, but this was not to be. Meal service began only at dinner time and till then it was only chai and snack service. A hunt on the platform stalls revealed that I would again be served with my by now favourite dish – what else but PS!!!!!!!! The post lunch ride took us past the Cantonment town of Nasirabad and other halts like Gulabpura.

The 4th occupant of our cabin was a serviceman on his way to Khandwa. The fellow was either the reserved type or had been driven past the end of his wits by the incessant cackle of three excited railfans with the cramped confines of a MG 2A cabin. Whatever, be the reason the chap was fast asleep and our banter ranged from the weird to the downright corny and every thing in between. At Mandal, one station before the textile town of Bhilwara we waited a long time for a crossing train before making our way through a surfeit of semaphores that guarded the station’s entrance.

Past Bhilwara, the sun fell rapidly and with that the spirits rose as the aperitifs for the evening were brought to the party along with a motley collection of hors d'oeuvres stocked up at Jaipur. While we were at it, our train docked in at Chittaurgarh where the Phulera loco gave way to another YDM4 from Mhow, which would haul our train right up to Purna. Dinner was served at Chittaur as well, which consisted of freshly cooked on board paranthas, dal, veggie, curd and pickle along with fried rice which was part of the peshal’ (special) thali. The regular thali got staid boiled rice of course. The food, served piping hot was excellent, much better than the fancy meals served on board the Rajdhanis. In fact, all three of us readily admitted that it was perhaps the best meal we had eaten aboard a train in a long time, and that too in a godforsaken MG pantry in the back of beyond!!

Nimbahera was next, where a longish halt for a crossing under the bright full moon proved to be a fantastic opportunity for me to take some night shots of freight MG stock. Next up was Neemuch, where we eagerly awaited the ghosts of Diwali past. We were on the door even before the train halted and a quick scan in the moonlit yard revealed the looming figures of Mohan’s ghosts and we were off. Sprinting across the track we climbed the platform and setup our cameras to reel off shots in whatever light that was available. The 3 YGs had been left there to rust in peace except when disturbed by the hoops of gone-loco rail fans jumping around like monkeys at mealtime.

As we pulled away, a toast was called in the honour of the rusting beauties and the party continued into the night past Mandasor. Alarms were set for 0400 hours and they rand just as the Goddess pulled into the suburbs of Indore past Lakshmibai Nagar. It was fairly chilly at that hour and a hot cuppa chai was called for. On the platform, a whole platoon on young NCC cadets lay sprawled on the platform sleeping uncomfortably as we prepared for the most exciting stretch of our journey.

A short run later we pulled into Mhow, a good 1 hour late. Dawn was breaking in the eastern sky as a YDM4 swung into action detaching 7 coaches from the formation and then leaving them into a siding before reattaching the SLR to reduce our rake length to 12 coaches. Correspondingly, ours became the second last coach in the consist and we looked forward to the Choral gorge while chomping away on freshly made Poha and chai. The ghost of PS was past or so I thought.

We were now waiting for Patalpani – where the water touched the deepest darkest depths of the earth and just as Mohan had predicted, the place was as beautiful as beautiful could get. The sun rose in the east while the moon set in the west and we could see them out of the left and right doors of the coach respectively.

Patalpani is the first of the brake testing halts as the Meenakshi prepares to tackle near vertical slopes of the Malwa plateau. The first of the 41% grades hit immediately past the starter and a few hundred meters ahead we were presented with a breathtaking view of the magnificent Patalpani waterfalls which were in full flow dropping from a height of more than 150ft. The depth of the pool into which the waters falls is allegedly unfathomed and folklore says it reaches Patal-Lok or the Netherworld.

From then on the journey was sheer magic, a journey that would stay imprinted in my memory till my dying day. The Meenakshi rumbled through cuttings, tunnels, thickets and valleys stopping for brake testing halts along the way. The sun rose over the misty Choral valley and the river gurgled far below on the valley floor. On a spectacular curve, just before the tunnel we halted. Part of the train was on a magnificent viaduct and the loco had stopped right next to a waterfall rolling down the hillside. The sun burned bright between the green leaves and the sight that unfolded before me was far more beautiful than what a camera could ever hope to capture.

The Choral accompanied us throughout our traverse through the valley and we reached Kala Kund, where a board under the home semaphore announced the end of the Ghat section. The mountainside however, was not going to leave us anytime soon, nor was the river Choral. It flow more or less parallel to us for quite a distance and crossed us again near the eponymous station. Beyond that, till Mukhtiara Balwada, we scampered through hill and valley across tight curves making for one of the loveliest mornings in recent memory. At Mukhtiara Balwada, we waited for a crossing train and in the process discovered more ancient rails on the loop line. These rails too were built by Barron Steel of England for BB&CI Railway way back in 1898!!!

As the sun grew hotter, we slunk back the comforts of our cabin waiting for Khandwa to arrive and along with it breakfast. The two bit town that Khandwa is, the meals were equally two bit and there I was suffering PS again for the 5th time in 36 hours. After that the train took a sweeping curve past Khandwa town, gaining height in the process and crossing the CR mainline and onwards to Akola. We chilled in the cabin, waiting for the next highlight – namely the Dhulghat spiral. This is the only one of its kind in India outside the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and is marked the sight of a tall viaduct as we approach it from the Khandwa side.

My handycam was ready and whirring as we went under the viaduct and into a sharp left handed curve right through a narrow cutting gaining height by one meter for every hundred we travelled forward. Soon we found ourselves on top of the very viaduct we passed a few minutes back and then curved left again heading south.

There is a tunnel shortly after the spiral and one after Wan Road station as well. There are several tall viaducts on this section and one – very aptly named ‘Amphitheatre’ (spelled Amphetheter) provides a stunning view of the plains below which eerily resemble the Serengeti Savannah !! Several local stuntmen showed of their daring but stupid skills as they crawled their way up the side of the coach on to the roof and then walking the length of the train as it wound down its course down the hills.

We crossed the Tapti near Tukaithad and also the Narmada before Khandwa which were the two major rivers along the way. Akola was the next major station (and our second tryst with catenary) on the way and we spent less than a minute on the platform as it was baking hot outside. We departed Akola alongside the Geetanjali to Howrah on the BG. We quickly climbed the ramp and across the BG to continue our southerly course. Having been treated to another excellent meal by the pantry, and having been up since 4AM, we decided to go for a nap.

The plan was the get up near Washim for the Penganga crossing, but alas my fatigue ruled and I got just before Hingoli Deccan, the erstwhile boundary of the Nizam’s Railway. Sings of conversion to BG were omnipresent past Hingoli, with cuttings being widened, sleepers lining trackside and pre fabricated concrete sections for bridges being readied. The plan is to convert the MG from Purna to Hingoli and then on to Akola, providing another route south.

Light fell past Hingoli, and it was time to party again. This time, it was a toast tinged with sadness as our journey neared its end and with it came the realization that soon this would all be history. The pantry served its delightful fare for one final time and we finished our meal just as we pulled up to Purna outer. As we waited, the Devagiri from Secundrabad went past on the BG side we followed it in shortly. At Purna, India’s premier MG train was pulled directly on to the siding even when a platform was available. Perhaps no one wanted to shunt the rake from the platform anymore. Perhaps no one cared for her anymore. No one but 3 nutcases who had travelled all the way from Jaipur, much to the amusement of the staff and fellow passengers.

We made our way into the town in search of a beer, but beat a hasty retreat 200 meters past the station. Purna unfortunately was not even a one pony town. We decided to stick to the familiar comforts of the railway station as we waited for our respective trains.

Vivek and Sanyog were due to take the Nanded – Daund passenger to Manmad and then on to Mumbai, while I was to take the Link express to Parbhani which would attach to the Manmad – Secundrabad Express. My train was a 3 coach affair and the tiny rake was doing 100kmph within minutes of leaving Purna and we reached Parbhani in no time at all. In fact The Daund passenger was waiting at Parbhani despite leaving half an hour before mine. Me and Vivek indulged in an yelling-across-the-platform-conversation, before their train started again.

Having had an early dinner, my tummy was growling again and Parbhani too, held aloft the PS banner high and once again I was digging into oily Pooris convincing myself that this would be just about the last time in my life I would be having PS.

After a fitful night’s sleep on the uneven halves of a side lower berth, I was glad to find myself at Vikarabad Jn. in the morning. An agonizing hour and a half later I am greeted by Bharath Moro and PVS at Secundrabad. PVS asks me what I want for breakfast and I guess you know the answer by now – anything but #$%^^ PS !!!!


The Smokin' WDM2 said...

How long is the Mhow shed gonna be MG? As it is, I think Sabarmati has transferred many of its YDM4s to Phulera, etc right?

Sidhusaaheb said...

I love gorging on the shrikhand, flavoured milk and other such stuff available at 'Sanchi' parlours at railway stations throughout M.P.!

nomad said...

DM2 : The Mhow shed will be around till the time some portion of the line is MG. The SBI locos went to Mhow and not so much to Phulera.

Sidhusaahed: Yes, the Sanchi Dairy products are really nice and I too have had lots of it, but somehow I could not find one on the MG routes.

Sriskandhs said...

Very well written..

chandni said...

that is a very long post and that is also a very nice post..

enjoyed reading it...