Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tale of Two Kingdoms

Across Marwar into Mewar

“Haylo.. Pappu... Pappu, can you hear me? Pappu, Pappu.... get the car to the station. Haylo, Pappu?” And so I got up, to find a middle aged gent screaming into his Chinese mobile phone. I headed to the door to find ourselves standing at the huge curve that leads into Ajmer Jn.

Eventually, we did get the signal and so did the uncleji – who managed to get Pappu reach the station in time to pick him up. Ajmer and many other stations in Rajasthan do not share the Railways’ fixation with tea bags. Instead, good old chai is brewed right on the platform providing an excellent start to what would be a long day.

We pulled into my first destination, Marwar Jn. bang on time. I heaved my two rucksacks on the spotlessly clean platform, dotted by numerous benches donated and installed by various Marwari families. I had more than three hours to kill before I caught the afternoon Meter Gauge service, one of only two that run from Marwar. Once it was a busy all MG junction on the with lines radiating to important towns like Ahmedabad, Jodhpur, Jaipur & Udaipur (via Mavli). Now, trains to the first three stations are on BG while MG towards Mavli survives simply because of a formidable ghat section across the Aravalis – the sole reason, why railfans make their pilgrimage to this one horse town.

At one point in time, Marwar boasted a grand station building & yard. Now it has a sole MG platform in one forlorn corner. The MG terminus on the Jodhpur side has been converted into a grain unloading siding or should I say, grain wastage siding.

The dinky little town however boasts some fine Bhojanalayas (restaurants). Eschew the Punjabi or South Indian dishes and go straight for the local Thali.

Take my word for it, you won’t find too many better meals. To boot, the owner got his wife to make parathas in his own household kitchen (adjoining the restaurant) on my special request. These were duly packed with Rajasthan’s signature green chilly pickle and tucked away for the journey.

There is only one day service to Mavli Jn – the 1350hrs 52075 passenger, which leaves Mavli in the morning as the 52076 and immediately returns. On its way, the train also shuttles water tankers between Goram Ghat (GGO), Phulad and Marwar. On this day however, the tankers were also accompanied by a few coaches who were due for their POH. This led to an elaborate shunting exercise compounding the delay already caused by the late incoming train. We were finally off at 1420, and I was already worried. I had a mere 20 minutes to catch a connecting train to Udaipur at Mavli, which was the last one of the day.

Marwar Jn. is situated at an altitude of 269m, just to the west of the ancient Aravalis which run south easterly from Delhi’s vicinity. The line has to climb these hills and then on to the Mewar plateau, upon which sit Mavli and Udaipur. Thus, the line was historically important, as it linked the eponymous princely states of Marwar and Mewar. The line was completed in the mid 1930s providing a direct connection between Jodhpur and Udaipur. These days however, the train’s priority can be judged by the fact that it is the train that has to halt at a level crossing. The driver has to look out for road traffic and then inch forward after ascertaining that all is well.

The line climbs slightly till Phulad, at an MSL of 352m. The lay of the land dictates a reversal at Phulad, from where the gradient rises immediately. The Ghat section ends of Khamblighat (KBK) which is 22 km by rail. Within this distance, the line climbs 305 m, peaking just before KBK at an MSL of 657m. At Phulad, a bunch of British tourists staying at the nearby heritage hotel clambered on. Phulad also serves as a late lunch halt with the stall there doing roaring business selling freshly made tea, pakoras and other savouries.

The train set off through a series of tight curves and sharp grades so characteristic of this section. This also necessitates a relatively slow section speed of 19 kmph. The line moves in a rough north-westerly direction till GGO. The vegetation is typical of the Aravalis with Kikar, Babool and other thorny bushes abounding. Accounts of this line by other railfans spoke of langoors and monkeys that line the station every time a train passes. A fellow traveller was even carrying food for the simians but they were conspicuous by their absence. Enquiry with the station master at GGO revealed that on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the monkeys do not come to the station. Instead they line up at a nearby Hanuman temple where the feast is much larger.

At GGO, one can easily see the line climbing further across the valley. A couple of viaducts are visible as well. The train reaches across the valley, by the means of a horse-shoe curve. Thereafter, the line holds a north westerly course for more than 10 kilometers along a ridge. This means that one can see GGO station and its surroundings for the better part of 30 minutes. On a clear day, one can even see Phulad station and the nearby reservoir on the plains.

Along this ridge, the train has to negotiate two tunnels of moderate length. The tunnels are unlined for most of their length and even the portals are not cemented as is commonly seen elsewhere. Having seen the tight curvature of the line and the width of the tunnels, I doubt if the same alignment can be used if the railways decide to convert this line to BG. Already, there is talk of BG conversion from Mawli to the temple town of Nathdwara further down the line.

Past the tunnels, the line curves sharply to the east and starts heading to KBK while still climbing. The final push to the summit is perhaps the steepest unassisted climb outside of the narrow gauge in India. While GGO is the only crossing station on the line, there are several catch sidings along the line for trains heading downhill.

The foreign tourist group got off at KBK – the cars that had dropped them Phulad were already waiting when we pulled in. I too considered jumping off there, for the NH8 crosses the rail track just outside the station. The train had maintained its delay and I was getting jittery about the connection at Mavli. But the rail fan in me prevailed and I stayed on.

There is little of note however on the line past KBK, so I spent the time reading the amazing exploits of Bear Grylls (of the Man vs Wild fame) in his book Facing Up – an account of his climb up Mt. Everest. As the sun fell, we approach the town of Nathdwara, famous for its Jain temples. For the first time in journey, the train actually got full and there were loads of passengers standing as well. This was strange as buses from Nathdwara to Mavli are plenty and the station is about 10km from the town. It is perhaps this demand that is prompting NWR to consider gauge conversion till here.

The slack in the time table was apparent past Nathdwara and we pulled in exactly as per schedule at Mavli. Another MG line to Bari Sadri originates here, hence the facilities for the smaller line are much better here than at Marwar. Time however was in short supply for me, so I chose to run to the ticket window instead of inspecting the MG platforms. Despite my 22 kg load, I was able to beat the crowd and soon was in possession of a superfast ticket to Udaipur. The 12992 Ajmer – Udaipur Intercity was bang on time. I did not get a seat in the unreserved coach that I had boarded, but the short 40 min sprint was despatched in a jiffy by the beast from Ratlam up ahead. I found a hotel just outside the station at Udaipur and was soon sleeping – another MG ride awaited me the next day.

Udaipur to Ahmedabad (or so I thought)

The first thing that greeted me, when I entered Udaipur station the next morning was this amazing installation art made of salvaged railway parts. One of the things I will always remember about the station was its cleanliness. It may be due to the fact that Udaipur only sees about a dozen daily trains, yet cleanliness of that sort does take a lot of keeping. The station also boasts of a very efficient old school refreshment room. The sort where you can have fantastic cutlets, omelette, toast and tea prepared fresh and served on bone china crockery and still pay 40 rupees for a hearty breakfast.

The MG platforms at Udaipur, like most of their ilk are a neglected lot. The rake of the 52927 Udaipur (UDZ) – Ahmedabad (ADI) Fast passenger was already stabled on the island platform. Sundry passenger and goods stock (for departmental use only) could also be seen scattered the shrinking MG yard. At the appointed hour, the Sabarmati based YDM4 at the helm of our train started and slowly made its way across the points. The southbound line passes through some of the less affluent parts of the city and soon finds itself among rocky outcrops of the Mewar Plateau. This soon gives way to the plateau proper where deep rock cuttings facilitate the passage of the permanent way for most part. Gnarled & twisted dead trees lay on the slopes, scattered around like extinguished dragons after a battle with the knights.

On the train, I was expecting a far larger crowd than what was there. After all, the line connects places which don’t have good road connections to Udaipur for most part. Little did I know why. My coach, being a reserved one in a day journey had less than 10 fare paying passengers. I spent most of the time at the door, marvelling at the raw beauty of this land. Jagged rocks loomed large and in between I could steal glimpses of hamlets in the valley below. Without warning, the train emerged from a cutting on the lovely Oda viaduct, giving me no chance to snag a picture.

A bunch of children were making full use of the emergency window in the coach ahead, and readily posed for my camera as the train rounded the innumerable curves on the line. The ghat section peters out at Zawar, which is 40 kilometers by rail, in which the line descends 228m from its peak MSL of 585.6m at Umra (the first station on the line from Udaipur). There was an extended halt at Zawar allowing passengers to stretch their legs and indulge in a cup of chai. A lovely lady in pink was going from coach to coach enquiring about something and was getting conflicting answers. Blissfully unaware, I rode on. While the descent eases after Zawar, the line continues to lose altitude all the way till Ahmedabad. This being Rajasthan, camels could be seen everywhere. So much so, that even the hills adjoining the track looked like camel humps

At Rikhabdeo Road, a roving mendicant entered my bay and seeing my attire and camera gear got into an animated conversation about who I was and why I was there. When he learnt that I planned to head to Ahmedabad, he burst out laughing. Now any self respecting railfan would take offense at that and needless to say I did so too. I produced my ticket which caused him to double up while letting me know that I was the only idiot aboard as the train was terminating at Dungarpur (two stations further). Of course I did not believe him - after all I was the one knew all about trains. And so I marched up to the guard and asked him – and he confirmed that indeed I was the only idiot aboard. It turned out that due to some local trouble over a level crossing, trains were not running between Dungarpur and Himmatnagar. Having booked my ticket much in advance, I had no way of knowing about this recent development.

And so here I did what every railfan does in times of dire need – call VSP. And as expected, he solved my problem in a jiffy. Turned out that Dungarpur was not exactly the boondocks as I had imagined - in fact it was a district headquarter. And its proximity to National Highway #8 would mean easy bus connections to Ahmedabad. But that was easier said than done.

As the train emptied itself at Dungarpur, I headed out in search of transport to take me to the Bus Stand. There were autos aplenty, but getting one to take me and my mountain of gear was another matter. All autos ply on the sharing mode; ferrying me would have meant the loss of revenue from two other passengers. And so I was left standing alone in the station’s parking lot. It took some twenty minutes for me to flag down an empty auto and convince him to take me to the bus stand for a ‘Peshal’ service.

Dungarpur is quite a busy town and the bus stand reflects that. When I got there, there were more than a dozen buses waiting to leave. Unfortunately, none of them were for Ahmedabad. The earliest bus, I was told was at 1715 hrs, so I had plenty of time to kill. The alarm clock in my stomach had gone off, indicating that it was lunch hour. There were plenty of restaurants across the road from the bus stand and I promptly entered the one that had advertised ‘Dal Baati Churma’ in largest font size possible. The dish is in fact a complete meal comprising of Lentils (Daal), Stuffed Dough Balls (Baati) with a host of accompaniments. All of it was for just 40 rupees, and for 5 more I got a generous dollop of ghee which transformed a great meal into a brilliant one. And the accompanying notice on the wall was a class of its own!

The king sized lunch prevented me from exploring the town any further, so I found a comfortable bench at the bus stand and the continuing adventures of Bear Grylls ensured that time passed by in a jiffy. Dungarpur to Ahmedabad is 176 km by road, which is the same as the journey by train. However, the brilliant NH8 ensured that I was in Ahmedabad an hour before the scheduled arrival of my passenger (had it gone the distance). And this was despite the 3 hour halt at Dungarpur. No wonder, the day train runs empty.

It was to be a two day halt in Ahmedabad, during which I visited the Thol Bird Sanctuary on the outskirts of the city and eating the amazing non-vegetarian food that the city has to offer.

Later, I was also taken on a guided tour of the city’s brilliant Bus Rapid Transit corridor by IRFCA member Abhijit Lokre. Seeing the way it has been designed & executed properly, I am not fully convinced that towns like Kochi & Jaipur are going to shoot themselves in the foot by going in for a Metro Rail system.

VSP, Tejender Reddy & Jayakar Sunkara also turned up in Ahmedabad having visited the temple towns of Dwarka & Somnath. We all had a great dinner together and the next morning, I caught the Navjeevan Express to Bhusaval to attend the 2011 IRFCA Convention.

... contd in Part 2
More pics from the trip here

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