Friday, December 29, 2006

Invading God's Own Country

Ok folks

It's time for that BIG holiday !! Am going on vacation with my parents after fifteen long years and in style. A week long sojourn in God's own country - Kerala !!

Let's see how this atheist fares there. Will be attempting a daily update from each of my stopovers, Airtel internet card permitting.

C'ya soon


Day 1 -Dec 31, 2006

Packing is on in full swing. Trying hard to find those nooks and corners in my rucksack to stuff the small but significant things like batteries, memory card, chargers et al. The sun is out and it looks to be a good day.

So for 8 days its goodbye to Delhi's fog and hello to sunny Kerala.


Got up at six and finished the packing after the morning chores. The cab came at 0915 and we were off. We reached Nizamuddin (NZM) station well before time, so spent a while at the Comesum food plaza chatting over breakfast.

At around 1030 we hefted our luggage and climbed the steep, uncomfortable stairs of NZM’s new entrance and reached the platform just as our train was being brought in. It had been more than ten years that I had been on a vacation of any sort with my parents, so this one brought all those memories of first class cabins, water in earthen pots, tea in kulhars and Vadilal’s ice cream at Nagpur back.

The train pulled out on time and thence began the never ending process of feeding, feeding and feeding by the stewards of the Trivandrum Rajdhani Express. Breadsticks and soup followed by lunch, followed by ice cream, followed by juice and snacks, followed by more breadsticks and soup, followed by dinner followed by ice cream… phew !!! In between all of this, countless trains sped past my window carrying tonnes and tonnes of human and sundry cargo. The landscape to Mathura is that of unending fields dotted by the odd industrial estate. The National Highway to Agra keeps company and it was fun to see even the most modern cars being thumped royally by the speeding Rajdhani.

Past Mathura, we parted company with the Central Line and joined the Western Line (zonal reorganization be damned). The stretch to Kota is one of the finest pieces of track in the country and the WAP4 up ahead made light of the 15 coach load and kept up a scorching pace. Inside the coaches, the roar of the ballast was muted and the PA system played piped music comprising of piano renditions of old Bollywood songs. The CD kept skipping every 3 seconds making the artist sound like a novice learning his notes. The first 15 minutes were amusing, then became a drag and by the end of the first hour the racket was unbearable. To compound matters, the young men across the aisle with the fancy Nokia were undoubted Himesh fans so you can very well imagine my plight.

The tracks past Bayana are very picturesque with a small outcrop of the Aravallis running parallel. Old Rajput chieftains had built watch towers which stand to this day. For the nth time I made a mental note of coming down here to indulge in some climbing and photography sessions, but with the weather being what it is, this plan has been safely slotted under the ‘summer’ calendar.

Kota arrived as the sun dipped for the last time in 2006. The Rajdhani thundered along merrily, as I climbed my berth to come face to face with the legendary ‘Open for Light’ reading lamps. Forsyth’s Afghan kept company till Vadodara. As the clock approached midnight, I was expecting some sort of cheer amongst the occupants of the train, perhaps some merry making too, but no one seemed to be interested in the passing of another year. I quietly took vodka swigs off my flask and my phone beeped endlessly with messages wishing me New Year and frantic newsmen calling for information on the fog that had engulfed my airport. Ignoring them all, I turned over and closed my eyes thinking of the one sipping vodka a thousand kms away.

Day 2 – Jan 1, 2007

Heavy braking roused me from my sleep, and I came to the door to find our train approaching Panvel, one of Mumbai’s far flung suburbs. Panvel is where the catenary ends and from here on, the diesels roam free. Panvel is also the beginning for the scenic Konkan Railway (KR), though technically it begins much later near Roha. The Konkan Railway is an engineering marvel, built in one of the toughest terrains in the world. Most of the railway passes through wilderness and the beauty of this region is as pristine as it gets. The railway is punctuated by numerous tunnels and viaducts and our train sped on and on with lesser trains making way for it at crossing stations.

Dawn broke, as we halted at Kolad where some technicians fitted KR’s ingenious Anti Collision Device on the guard’s compartment. This patented measures proximity between two trains on the same track and hoots much in advance to warn the driver of a possible collision. The scene at Kolad was misty and the mist deepened into dense fog as we entered deeper into the vales. Shrouds of grey-white cloud hung low over the moist fields and hill tops, while fishing boats and trawlers prepared to depart for the morning catch in the endless stream of creeks and backwaters that dot this region.

The Rajdhani though did not pause to admire the scenery as it plunged headlong into tunnels, emerging over tall viaducts and back into the bowels of the earth as our ears popped with alarming regularity. The viaducts on KR are amongst the tallest in the world and cows seemed as small as mice as the grazed quietly as the sun broke through the misty veil.

The age-old vegetarian Rajdhani consisting of bread, cutlet and boiled French Fries were served along with the do-it-yourself mugs of chai or coffee. Tunnels kept coming, tunnels kept going while my camera shutter snapped happily. Ratnagiri was the first major station of note where the driving crew changed duty while passengers took the opportunity of stretching their legs. The tunnels resumed as soon as we left the station and the longest tunnels on this route, measuring nearly 7 kilometers in length caused another round of fervent fingering of the ear canals trying inside the compartment.

Past Sawantwadi Road, we entered Goa. Even though the state is famous for its beaches, most people don’t know that 80% Goa is hilly, with the beaches forming but a sliver off its west coast. The terrain through which the track passes in the state is as hilly as it gets Goa too has its fair share of tunnels, most notably being the ones at Pernem, Old Goa (Karmali) and Verna. The highlight of the Goa passage is of course the crossing of the twin rivers of Mandovi & Zuari. The bridge over the Mandovi river gives a clear view of the famous Old Goa churches, while from the Zuari – the sea can be seen. Huge barges ply up and down the rivers carrying precious cargo and in the evening, the Mandovi also plays host to pleasure cruises with enough singing, dancing and beer on board.

Entering Madgaon, Goa’s principal railway station, one also sees the ambitious demo line of the Skybus Monorail project initiated by KR. The project was launched with much fanfare, but then fizzled out after an accident and poor market response. KR is still hopeful of its future, though for the moment it hangs in limbo.

Though most people travel on the KR only till Madgaon, the truly spectacular territory only starts once you head south. One of the last stations in Goa is called Balli, and a few miles south of the station, you cross a small river barely a few hundred metres away from the beach. The hills still hug the tracks, but at some spots you can clearly see the Arabian Sea a stone’s throw away.

Crossing into the state of Karnataka, the scenic beauty just got amazing by the minute. The first halt in Karnataka was the town of Karwar, where the Indian Navy is building its largest base. Just before the station, the train crosses a large river and the surroundings are ethereal to say the least. Words fail me as I try to describe the beauty that rolled before my eyes and for minutes altogether I was left staring into the window, stunned by the vista.

This was the first of many such views that I could lay my eyes on, as the Rajdhani sped southwards. The tunnels never ceased, but every now and then we would cross a small stream or a river, and I could spot tiny fishing boats coming in with the day’s catch or a ferry helping children return home from school. The banks of these streams were smooth but muddy and one could spot neatly marked footprints of those who ply their trade by the banks and to whom the water was the source of all livelihood.

This part was also home to some of the densest coconut groves that I have ever seen along with the lushest paddy fields that one can hope to find. Amazingly though, I did manage to see a few examples of what looked like coniferous trees, the kinds that you’ll find a good 2000km to the north. Was it some trickery that my eyes were fooled into, or did nature find a way of making these oddballs survive so far from their natural habitat?

We were running behind schedule, a result of long slow runs due to track maintenance and the sun was slowly dipping over the western horizon as we marched untiringly towards Udupi, the town that gave India the South Indian Fast Food.

An NRI couple had blocked the doorway with half a dozen huge suitcases, ostensibly on a long winter holiday. Just about then, half the compartment chose to go to the loo on that end. Naturally, an argument erupted with a Punjabi aunty demanding that they remove the suitcases. All requests to go to the toilet on the other end fell on deaf ears and I merrily watched the whole drama from the sidelines. Mercifully, for us and the lady – the station arrived soon enough and the lady merrily ignored the statutory request of not using the toilet at stations, while the couple unloaded their 747 worth of cargo.

I was hoping to find some piping hot dosas or idlis at Udupi station, but none of them materialized. However, the wealth generated by the eponymous restaurants all over the country could clearly be seen as modern apartments and affluent looking bungalows were sprinkled all over the hills that surround the station. I am safely assuming that some of that might have come from the software engineers that the south of our country has exported en masse.

From Udupi, it was a shot run to Kankanadi, a suburb of the important town of Mangalore. The main Mangalore station lies on another alignment of the railroad, and the KR line is served by Kankanadi – a station located in a jungle on the outskirts of the town. Four years ago, it had taken me nearly 45 minutes just to find the road which led to the station from the main street. Most KR stations are in fact located in the middle of nowhere. The line more or less follows the coast line going right through except the most difficult of terrain. As a result, most stations’ location was dictated by the alignment of the track than convenience. As a consequence some stations on the line are 10 kilometers or more from the towns they are supposed to serve!!

Darkness fell as we left Kankanadi and crossed a huge river emptying itself into the sea about a kilometer downstream from the bridge. The action shifted indoors with my co-passengers, especially a Marathi lot showing keen interest in my photo catch for the day. As always, the hidden professionals in the audience came to the fore and soon I was being offered advice on how I should have focused on this rather than that, and being bombarded with questions on why on earth was I shooting trains?

I mumbled oft practiced replies and then turned into my corner to finish off Fredrick Forsyth’s ‘Afghan’, which is an interesting read though not in the same league as the author’s earlier works. Guess age catches up with us all.

Dinner was served late due to, er….. technical difficulties – which basically meant that the Pantry car stove had packed up. We rumbled through north Kerala as I wolfed down the last of my meal. I slept a bit early as we had an early start and for once I slept peacefully on a train without having to resort to a drink or two.



The Smokin' WDM2 said...

Hey Shanx, welcome to Kerala! Have any railfanning in mind? The whole stretch of Kerala (apart from where the lines pass close to houses)is scenic. And where do u plan to stay?

chandni said...


have fun and hope it proves to be a wonderful start to the new year :)

Sidhusaaheb said...

Here's hoping for more of those wonderful Nomad travelogues that I find so very interesting!

chandni said...

wow! Just the train journey has been put in to words so well that couldn't stop reading!

Aaiting more...

The Smokin' WDM2 said...

Wow! Another one of the Nomad's ngr8 travelogues! Shanx, dying for more...

Sidhusaaheb said...

I've travelled quite a few times on the same tracks, at least from H. Nizam. to Kota, while I was at Indore for a couple of years. The train that I used to travel by, was the H. Nizam.-Indore Intercity Express.

I haven't read Frederick Forsyth's Agfhan, but can certainly vouch for some of his earlier novels.


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