I found myself thinking 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 told us to go to platform number 16. We were boarding the Delhi—Dibrugarh Rajdhani Express.
I had just completed a six month assignment during which I had been making my way through the heartland of India meeting non-profits. But now with work wrapped up, I was meant to be homeward bound. This was the longest I had ever been away from home. 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!
That’s why in May when I was in Vijayawada—at the time the Sun was at its infernal best—I sought inspiration from webpages bookmarked and buried away under uncategorized 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 while 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 railway station between Mysore and Mangalore in my notebook on a family holiday during the summer break at school!
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. It turned out that 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 New Delhi—Dibrugarh Town Rajdhani Express (12436) is a 44-hour train journey that makes its way through 5 states—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 the mango orchrds, the Common Man toiling away in brick kilns while buffaloes lounged in ponds. On day two, and if you’re playing real close attention, you begin to realise that banana plantations are to Bihar what tea estates and bamboo plantations are to Assam! And as this is the Rajdhani train, food is a non-issue.
Yes, the Dibrugarh—Kanyakumari Vivek Express (15906), at 81 hours and 40 minutes traversing through seven states, is the longest train journey in India. 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 Furkating Junction to Lumding (Assam). Trees with girth so wide that it would take 10 people to hold hands around it; the jungles are untouched and un-manicured—a respite to the eyes and the lungs that had 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 you can ever get to see people and places without having to stop or stay over anywhere. Needless to say, I was impressed when the train completed its journey on time, without a minute’s delay.
Incidentally, Pamban Bridge was also the longest sea bridge until Mumbai’s Bandra-Worli Sea Link opened in 2010. The Pamban rail bridge over the Palk Strait is 2,065 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. Surprisingly, the Sleeper Class ride was much more comfortable than 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!
I rode across Pamban Bridge a second time on my way out of Rameshwaram later that same night. The same lighthouse light that had welcomed us, now bade us goodbye. 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 from Chennai to Bangalore - because there was no direct train to Bangalore City.
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, through a train window! All trains that pass through Londa in Karnataka also pass Castle Rock and Kulem stations. The journey is stunning as it takes you through tunnels, smaller waterfalls, and the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and the Mollem National Park. Make your journey more exciting by seating on the train floor by 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 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 number of accidents—leading to loss of limb and life—and one now also finds an almost unnatural police presence armed with walkie-talkies controllling the crowds!
On the final leg of my train journey, I boarded train no. 10104 that would take me through the Western Ghats. The scenic route followed by the Mandovi Express—that leaves from Madgaon in Goa in the morning and arrives in Mumbai the same night—invites you to ditch your AC ticket and opt for the Sleeper Class where the open windows allow you to be one with the natural environment!
This journey is one for the shutterbugs—the train zooms along bridges overlooking jungles, rivers and dwellings! And if there’s any pantry car of a train to swear by—for ensuring that you won’t spend a single moment not moving your jaw like a ruminating cow—it has to be the Mandovi Express.
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!
And while I am still deciding whether it was the world that passed me by through the window or vice versa, why don’t you live your idea of an adventure that you’ve been itching to try out?
Elita is an avid traveller and blogger. She blogs at http://nomadicthunker.blogspot.in/ and her Twitter/Instagram handle is @NomadicThunker