It was the winter of 1997-98, I was a 1st year student at the Delhi University, when a bunch of friends decided to spend the New Year in Chandigarh & Simla. The plan was to take a train to Chandigarh and from there on meet another friend who lived there and proceed to Simla. We were all set, when at the last moment our friend from Chandgarh was thrown out of his house by his dad (albeit temporarily)...
We were really depressed seeing our grand plans being washed down the drain, when a brilliant idea struck R who belongs to Nepal. She suggested that we go to Pokhara in Nepal to visit her sister who was married to a captain in the Nepalese Army. This sounded like a brilliant idea, and I for one was most excited at the idea of seeing the Himadri range up close & personal.
Immediately, travel plans were drawn up and the route chosen was to Gorakhpur by train from Delhi and bus from there on. We got RAC tickets and leaving my residence for the station I checked the status on the phone I was told that we had confirmed seats now and gleefully met the rest of the lot at Nirula's (Delhi's famous pizza and burger chain) in Connaught Place from where we went to New Delhi station. It was about 1700hrs and the train was scheduled to leave at 1730!! Without bothering to check the status board, we went directly to the platform and started asking the porters but none of them had an idea about the train.
So I asked my friends to wait there while I checked at the enquiry booth. I took the ticket & sauntered down to the counter when I opened the ticket and....... horror of horrors it read Delhi Jn. (Old Delhi) & not New Delhi as we had presumed. I swear if somebody had timed me that day, I would have broken the world record for 100m & 200m sprints!!! When I told me friends about the situation they started laughing because they thought I was playing a prank, but it took all of a second for the color on their face to drain away when I showed them the ticket!! After that all hell broke loose, and before you could say Taxi, we were already on one rushing towards Old Delhi.
For those who don't know, it takes about 25 mins on a light day to reach Old Delhi from New Delhi, and it was about 1715 and rush hour had begun in the walled city. The Sardarji at the steering wheel was one of the very best and he skillfully weaved his way through the traffic. He didn't need a horn, he had me leaning out of the window, hurling the choicest of Punjabi expletives at anyone or anything that came remotely close to delaying us!!
He dropped out outside Delhi Jn. at exactly 1730 and luckily we didn't have to climb any stairs to reach the platform as the train was right in front of us. We started hunting for S8, our coach, but there was nothing beyond S6! Not knowing what to do, we boarded a second class unreserved coach just as the train started moving, and then it dawned on me... I had called the Hindi IVRS number and my coach was S 'Ek' meaning 'One' and not 'eight' as I had heard it!! We planned to get off at Ghaziabad and run to our coach but the way was blocked by innumerable daily passengers, we just couldn't even leave our seats, so for the moment we had to stay put where we were.
Darkness fell thereafter and it really started getting cold. We boys, in all our bravado were not wearing anything beyond a pullover and a light jacket and the cold really started biting. The girls had more sense and had packed in a couple of shawls. We just huddled together in them, while the train trudged slowly through the fields of Uttar Pradesh. The fog had started coming in really bad and the train reduced to a crawl, and finally came to a halt at Pilakhua. A few passengers got off, but I guess it was too late for us to go and retrieve our seats in the Sleeper coach, and the lack of vestibules in the coach made things difficult.
The train stood for a long time at Pilakhua, and it was the first time that I really started noticing our co-passengers. Most of them were daily commuters between Delhi & neighboring towns. They spoke in an accent typically found in the bustling markets of Chandni Chowk, Dariba Kalan, Chwari Bazar etc. I guess most of them simply weren't used to having 2 good looking girls in jeans in their coach and I suddenly realize that almost the entire compartment was staring at us!!!
We had generally been talking in English, and our attire & rucksacks made stand out like sore thumbs in the entire coach!! None of the stares looked friendly, some were simply ogling and one particular specimen brazenly was scratching his privates! I could even hear some snide comments being passed about us (specially the girls) and I almost wanted to get up and teach one or two a lesson, but I knew that I would be up against the entire lot, and it would be a downright stupid move and simply chose to ignore them.
We had been stationary at Pilakhua for almost an hour now. Most of the passengers had also gotten down the coach was a much 'happier place' now, so we boys decided to stretch our limbs and take a leak while the girls chose to stick it around in the coach itself. Stepping outside, we saw the reason for the halt.. it was fog. Fog so dense that you couldn't see anything beyond 5 metres!! And I ain't kidding.. infact while we were standing there on the adjacent track, I told P that I could hear a train approaching, he said no, if there was one, we could at least see the headlamp. Barely 15 secs later, we heard a sharp blast from what could have been nothing but a locomotive horn we jumped off from the track. We saw what looked like a zero watt bulb 10 miles away, but was infact the headlamp of the damned engine and it was barely 20m away. Thankfully it was virtually crawling, so no hard done.
This train was packed with evening commuters and they were all getting restless, so much so that the combined mob of both the trains started stoning the signal cabin, forcing the poor fellers inside to abandon their posts and run for their lives!! Hearing the commotion, the poor Station Master came to the scene, only to be caught hold of by the irate janta and given a sound thrashing!! Seeing things go out of control, we thought it was better to be with the girls and we got back in the coach.
For the next 30 mins or so, we could hear all hell break loose outside and then all of a sudden the adjacent train blew it's horn and started moving. Seeing this almost all of the crowd forgot everything and clambered on!! It was all peaceful within a minute!! Apparently the Station Master thought it was best for these buggers to go ahead and face trouble themselves so he let the train go in spite of the fog. Later we learnt, that the crowd had even ransacked the station and even broken the furniture and using it as firewood to keep them warm!!
Privately, I was wondering whether it was really a good idea to travel not knowing what lay ahead, but still decided to stick it!! Finally around an hour or so later, the fog reduced a but and we were given the go ahead. We crawled slowly to Hapur, by when our stomachs were screaming with hunger. A typical small town station, Hapur at around 2230 hardly had any stalls open, except the guy with the bread-omlette tea stall!! Those days I used to be vegetarian, but the hunger was such that I didn't even think twice before digging into the omlettes. In all we must have finished a dozen omlettes between us, which topped by the piping hot chai, made for a hearty meal:o)
We settled down in our seats, and the coach had literally emptied itself, so that we could easily stretch our legs. Since the windows totally fogged out, we could barely see the countryside. It's only when the stations came by, did we have a semblance of where we were. Slowly, the entire coach was asleep and there was hardly any light, save for the faint light bulb near the doors. There, between in the passage between the toilet doors sat a gaunt man, somewhere in his 80s singing a song in the local dialect 'Chodi Sundar Avadh Nagariya....' (Thus left the beautiful city of Ayodhya... referring to the Ramayana where Lord Ram is banished to the jungle for 14 years). His singing went on all through the night, though I could not pick up most of the words, those lines still ring clearly in my head whenever that night comes to my mind.
All night long the train crawled along at a snail's pace and many time used to stop for long intervals at wayside stations. Morning at around 0700 we reached Rampur, a distance of 189km in a mere 13 hrs!!! The train stopped for about 30 mins at Rampur we had breakfast which was repeat of last night's dinner, omlette, toast and chai!! The long halt allowed us to stretch our legs our bit. And then off we went again. Fortunately for us, the same came out pretty soon and it was real bright and visibility was great. And for the first time in 15 hours we crossed 60kmph! The driver settled down to a steady 70-75kmph and we were rolling down the fields of UP. The landscape was boring, with the monotony of mustard field after mustard field. P & I promptly named it DDLJ country. Now u'd ask me why, well if you have seen the Bollywood tripe called 'Dilwale Dulahaniya Le Jayenge' would remember the song which shows Amrish Puri & his family traveling by train running through lush mustard fields...
We reached Sitapur City around 1230 hrs where the train halted for 20 mins or so. We had lunch consisting of ripe guavas. There on the new train really stretched its legs and we creamed past the 100kmph barrier. The dilapidated coach was threatening to come apart at it's seams but the driver kept up the pace relentlessly. There were halts every half an hour or so, but they had no effect on our man who drove like a man possessed. We really covered up some lost ground and reached Gonda Jn. at about 1530 hrs. From there on till GKP, the ride was pretty sedate and at Maskanwa, all hell broke loose again. As soon as the train halted hordes of milkmen piled on into the coach, not before hanging their milk cans by the window rods with the help of hooks. Within a matter of seconds each and every window and rows of milk cans hanging, and some even hung their bicycles on the windows!! Despite our fears, the milkmen were pretty civilized and none of them bothered us for a seat and despite the crowd we were sitting comfortably.
But it wasn't long before trouble of another sort started. We had crossed Khalilabad station and were now on the outskirts of Gorakhpur, when suddenly one of the milkmen got up and said "Achha bhaiya raam raam, hum chalat bha-in" (OK brother, time for me to go) and with these words, he promptly pulled the chain!! The train stopped, he along with many others coolly got off, detached their cycles and milk cans and made off. The poor guard and I guess the assistant were left with the task of resetting the alarm and the train started in about 5 mins, only to halt again within the next kilometer or so!! Leaning out I saw another lot of milkmen getting off and making their way home, while all the time the poor guard could just shake his head and curse them under their breath!! It took us nearly 50 mins and some 7 milk halts to cover the last 10km to GKP and we finally got off at the station at 1920 hrs, 26 hours after we had left Delhi!!
But that was just the first half of our journey to Nepal, we still had to cross the border into the Himalayan Kingdom and I for one had no clue how?
Continued in part 2....