The Golden Age of Flying

The Golden Age of Flying

An ever popular topic in the media is to write articles reminiscing about the so-called “Golden Age of Air Travel”, referring to the 1960s to 80s. A quick Google search will throw up dozens of write-ups about how amazing and luxurious air travel was in those days with big comfortable seats, beautiful air hostesses and sumptuous meals, and how today air travel has become uncool, tedious and uncomfortable. But is it so?

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Truth be told, the Golden Age of air travel is now. Airplanes today are faster, safer and more comfortable than “those days”, connecting the world in ways never thought possible, with comforts and amenities never imagined then. Flying today is faster- you can fly across the world non-stop from Dubai to Auckland (Emirates), or Sydney to Dallas (Qantas), or Atlanta to Johannesburg (Delta) in under 20 hours, safer- number of accidents being in the order of 1 in millions of flights compared to a much higher number in the 60s and 70s, cleaner- smoking was allowed in-flight then, quieter- try flying on an MD-80 to get a feel, and more comfortable with mood lighting, TV screens and Wi-Fi at 35,000 feet. Big seats were nice then, but today we have lie-flat beds and private suites with multi-course gourmet meals and drinks.

You must be wondering, what are you talking about? Flights today are about sitting in a cramped seat with one tiny bag of peanuts and a soda, staring at a dull blue seat in front, waiting for the ordeal to end. Well, this is the difference- flying today has become a lot more affordable than it ever used to be, and with that comes the compromise on extra amenities. Typical flight fares in the 60s and 70s, accounting for inflation, were typically 2 to 3 times higher than what we pay today. This makes all those “golden age of flying” articles an apple to oranges comparison. If you want to pay that kind of money to fly, you can still do it and get an enjoyable experience. It is called flying on international Business Class or First Class!

If you are like me, a budget minded traveler who has always traveled Economy class, walking past those fancy Business Class seats looking in envy, here is a virtual tour of experience from the other side- the Golden Age of air travel in 2016-

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The special treatment for Business class fliers starts even before boarding the flight. Airlines such as Emirates and Etihad offer a complimentary chauffeur driven car to pick you up from home to the airport. Once at the airport, no need to stand in long queues for check-in and dropping off bags. There is a separate counter with no queue with smiling staff waiting for you. Drop off the bags and you get a card for lounge access.

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Priority access through security and immigration at Mumbai

The next privilege- dedicated security and immigrations counters. Breeze through security in 2 minutes, departure immigration done in another 2 minutes and instead of waiting by the gate, head to the swanky lounge. The GVK lounge at Mumbai may seem a bit over-the-top to some but the complimentary meals, snacks and drinks are a nice start to the trip.

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GVK Lounge at Mumbai airport, shared by all airlines

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Midnight snacks and drink at the lounge before boarding

Once boarding is called, First and Business class passengers get priority access to get onboard. This flight from Mumbai to Abu Dhabi operated by Etihad using a Jet Airways plane (Boeing 777-300ER for those who care for details) has Business class laid out in what Jet calls “herringbone layout” so everyone gets an individual seat with a privacy partition and direct aisle access, no need to worry about pesky co-passengers. There is an amenity kit, a big pillow and a very soft blanket present at the seat.

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While the rest of the passengers are boarding, a friendly Etihad attendant (they are NOT “air hostesses”) comes to greet and offer a pre-boarding drink- a lemon mint juice, and the meals menu. The food and drinks variety is impressive for a 2.5 hour flight. Meal is served soon after takeoff. The meal comes with fruits and a variety of bread, butter and jam on the sides, all served on real china, not plastic trays.

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The biggest differentiator between Business and Economy class travel are the lie-flat seats which turns into a bed at the press of a button. Ah! Gotta love this!

At the layover in Abu Dhabi, Business class passengers get their dedicated security line, much to the disappointment of Economy class passengers whose queue is huge and would take at least half an hour to clear. Once cleared, awaits the Etihad signature lounge (Abu Dhabi is Etihad’s main hub) which is very spacious with a wide spread of food and drinks. The lounge also has a spa where you can register for free massages or shower.

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Etihad Lounge at Abu Dhabi

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From the lounge, time to head for  US pre-clearance. Abu Dhabi has an arrangement with the USA to clear passengers’ immigration during the layover itself, so you can simply walk out once reaching the US. Once again, Business class passengers are directed to an almost empty immigrations area, where for a change, the officers wait for you, instead of you having to wait an hour in queue!

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The bird ready to fly 17 hours non-stop

Once the boarding is announced on time and once again First and Business class passengers get to go onboard before others. This is an ultra-long flight of 16 hours and 40 minutes to Los Angeles, operated by one of Etihad’s Boeing 777-200LR (the plane that holds Guinness World Record for longest non-stop flight ever). Unlike the previous flight, this has Business Class seats arranged facing the front, not angled, but staggered so that everyone gets direct aisle access. Very comfortable for such long journeys.

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For the long flight ahead, provided is an amenity kit with slippers, eye mask, toothbrush, toothpaste, moisturizer, lip balm etc, a big fluffy pillow and the softest, most comfortable blanket! The friendly attendants for Business class greet everyone by name, provide the menu and offer pre-boarding drink of either orange juice or champagne.

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Unlike most other airlines that have a fixed meals schedule, Etihad lets Business and First Class passengers decide their own meals and mealtimes on long flights. The menu lists everything that is available, and the choice is yours when you want to get breakfast, lunch, dinner or a combination of anything from the list!

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After finishing the delicious meal, either pick something from the wide variety of movies and TV shows to play on the huge screen in front or turn the seat into a comfortable flat bed and get a nice comfortable sleep for many hours. On such long flights, you can complete an entire night’s sleep, wake up and realize we are only halfway! To make up for it, there are mid-flight snacks such as these amazing madeleine and chocolate cookies-

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Finally after 17 hours and almost 14,000 km on non-stop flying the plane touches down in Los Angeles, and it is such a relief it is to just walk out instead of going into a excruciating wait for immigration at the end of such a long flight!

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That is one long flight!

So, you might ask, how much does this experience cost? Answer- can be as low as $40. Yes, that is not a typo, forty dollars and a truckload of frequent flier miles! To be specific, 65,000 American Airlines miles. It sounds like a lot, but if you are in the US, an easy way to get there is to get a travel or airlines branded credit card, many of which offer 50,000 miles as signup bonus if you get it at the right time, and then the dream flight is not that far away! Keep looking and you too can experience what the “Golden Age of air travel” feels like today!

Istanbul, not Constantinople

Istanbul, not Constantinople

Located strategically on the historic Silk Route on the border of Europe and Asia, the city of Constantinople enjoyed its glory over two thousand years as the capital of the Great Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey. More recently, in 1930 the city was renamed, and is now Istanbul, not Constantinople. The name may have changed, it may no longer be the capital, but the influence of history and the many cultures remain intact in this beautiful city on the Mediterranean that spans across two continents.

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So, what does one do and what does one see when visiting Istanbul? Where do I even start? There is simply so much that this city offers that it may take several days, or several visits to take it all in. I am going to give a quick rundown on what to do on ‘A Day in Istanbul’ (I did this over three days, and it is not worth trying to cover it in one day, but for the sake of narrative, we will go with it).

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Even before landing in Istanbul, the first question is, where do I stay, considering the city is so huge? I went with the conventional touristy choice- Sultanahmet area in the old city on the European side, and I highly recommend this. The hotels are plentiful, the narrow cobbled streets have a charm of its own, the sight of bright blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea from the window is pretty and it is within walking distance of some of the most popular sights to visit.

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The day starts with a sumptuous traditional Turkish breakfast with many varieties of vegetable, yogurt and bakery items whose names I do not remember but the taste I sure do, along with the ubiquitous Turkish tea (chai), the first of many that you will invariably have eventually. A short walk out opens into a giant courtyard, on either side of which are two imposing structures- the Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque due to its turquoise interiors (Trivia: the early Europeans named the colour “turquoise” due to the Turks’ love for this shade of blue)) and the Hagia Sophia. This is the thriving tourist hub of the city, full of life any time of the day or night.

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My first attempt to visit the Blue Mosque fails since it is open to non-Muslim tourists only at certain hours of the day (also, appropriate attire is required. No shorts or sleeveless tops for everyone, and women need to cover their hair. If you land up short, they provide bright blue bedsheet-like things at the door to cover up) so across the street we go to Hagia Sophia which is more open, both in terms of time and dress code.

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For a place with myriad history as the Hagia Sophia, one would think a self-guided audio tour is great, but I was mistaken. The one they provide is a big disappointment. It is vaguely ordered, incoherent and boring. Avoid, and explore on your own. The structure itself is anything but boring- it is grand, magnificent and awe-inspiring especially considering it was built a thousand years ago without today’s modern engineering tools.

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Next up, just behind on the other side is the entrance to Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years. Built on the best location in the city- overlooking both the Bosphorous and the Golden Horn it is a nice walk through various ornately decorated rooms and a museum of old weapons. Some of the rooms have huge queues to enter which I skip since I have a lot more to cover.

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Before leaving the area it is worth giving another shot at entering the Blue Mosque. The queue is long but moves quickly and it is fun seeing all the caught-unaware tourists wrap themselves up in blue bedsheets in awkward ways. New fashion gets born here out of necessity.

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Inside, the mosque is one huge circular room with towering domes covered in intricate designs and stained glass windows. The center of the mosque is devoted to the faithful praying in silence, while around the edges, tourists gawk in awe at the beauty of the structure. The grandeur of it is difficult to put in words.

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It is time to move on to other parts of the city, and thankfully Istanbul’s excellent public transport system makes this very easy. Trains, trams, subway, buses, funiculars, ropeways, ferries you name it and it is there. It is like someone thought “How many different types of public transport vehicles exist? Let’s put them ALL!”. For those who desire more privacy there are cabs and Uber. On my only cab ride, I get a driver who is not wearing a seatbelt, holding a cigarette in one hand and steering in other, one eye on the road and other eye on his strategically mounted mobile phone on which he is watching a movie! While driving! Thanks, I will stick to the trams.

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Connecting the two European halves of Istanbul across the Golden Horn is the Galata Bridge, under which are dozens of restaurants whose staff will jump over each other to invite you to their eatery. Apparently the place is famous for seafood, which is irrelevant for me as a vegetarian but a couple of my friends claim they enjoyed their fish dishes.

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A short but steep uphill walk away, tucked between old buildings is the Galata Tower. Built in 1348, the stone tower rises over the skyline and offers a magnificent 360 degree view of the entire city- this is one of my favorite place, great for photography.

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While at Galata, I see signs to Tunel– the world’s oldest funicular and the second oldest underground railway, in use for over 150 years taking passengers up a steep incline to Beyoglu at the start of Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) which is the life of Istanbul in the evenings and night. Lined with shops, restaurants, bookstores, art galleries, clubs and everything fun, it is open only to pedestrians and a historic tram.

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If an underground inclined railway is not your cup of tea, the alternative is to walk up from Galata to Beyoglu through narrow lanes great for window shopping, and maybe stop by at one of the quaint little coffee shops with local music lovers playing Kemençe and Bağlama.

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At the other end of Istiklal Caddesi is Taksim Square, a major public square, sometimes called the heart of modern Istanbul that shot to worldwide fame during the 2013 protests. On a normal day today, the square is the de-facto place to gather and celebrate every time one of the local football teams win a game, and I am fortunate to witness one of those celebrations which can get quite raucous.

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Speaking of good fortune, I also discover a popular sweets shop at Taksim Square which serves the BEST baklava I have ever eaten! Heavenly dry-fruit laden goodness!

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One thing not to be missed while in Istanbul is a cruise on the Bosphorus and I believe my best decision has been to get onboard one that departs just before sunset. The light is beautiful to illuminate the city on both sides and the weather pleasant to sit on the outdoor deck to take in the views.

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The Bosphorus connecting Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea is one of the busiest waterways in the world, shared by everything from giant container ships to luxury yachts and from cruise liners to humble ferries.

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Istanbul, with its long history, has historic landmarks strewn about all over the city, some of which do not get much love from tourists just because they are out of the way. One such gem, away from maddening crowds, sitting by itself in the middle of traffic and residences is the Valens Aqueduct.

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Built by the Roman Empire way back in 4th century AD to provide water supply to Constantinople, this majestic structure stands tall even today, and there is a beautiful park at its base to spend an hour or two in peace looking at the city go by about its business.

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The sun may set, but activities in Istanbul are far from over. Back in the old city, if in the mood for shopping the place to head to is the Grand Bazaar which I hear is beautiful but having skipped that (there is never enough time to cover EVERYTHING in Istanbul), I do not have any personal experience to share about it. If shopping is not your cup of tea, like me, the alternative is to step into one of the many eateries that feature live music and the famous Sufi whirling dervishes.

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Instead, I decide to spend my night back in Sultanahmet. The crescent moon is up, there is a nip in the air. Sit down on one of the benches looking at the grand Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque on either sides lit up, faint classical Turkish music playing in one of the nearby cafes, sipping a cup of hot chai. This is bliss, and an experience to remember for lifetime!

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–> Going to Istanbul? My TripRatings:

Paperwork                    9 / 10

Visa-free tourist access or print e-visa at home in a simple 5 minute process. Worst case, e-visa can be purchased at Istanbul Ataturk airport too, just before immigration, but I would not recommend taking that risk.

Language                       7 / 10

Most in the city understand at least basic English. Helps if you know Arabic/Urdu/Persian/Hindi since Turkish has similarities with them all

Food                                7 / 10

Lots of options for food, beverages, desserts, even for vegetarians, especially for breakfast.

Transport                        9 / 10

Excellent public transport, cheap taxis. Word of caution- Istanbul has two airports- Ataturk (IST) is the main airport well connected to the city, Sabiha (SAW) is the secondary airport for domestic flights and is far. Really, really far!

Connectivity                   8 / 10

International roaming works fine, wi-fi available in hotels and coffee shops. Can purchase local SIM if staying longer

Entertainment                9 / 10

There is so much to see and do, the only downside is you will never be able to cover it all

Shopping                          7 / 10

Lots to buy, but beware of getting scalped. If you’re good at bargaining, go for it!

America The Beautiful

America The Beautiful

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee

Yes, as this century old famous song suggests, the United States has an abundance of natural beauty- from snow covered peaks to dense forests to miles of deserts and everything in between. The country, however, is very vast. So how does one best enjoy this beauty? Certainly not from a cramped airplane cabin flying at 35,000 feet. Possibly by driving, but that requires the driver to focus on the road and gets tiring after several hours. Fortunately, there is another way- the way early men conquered the Wild West- yes, by train!

Contrary to oft heard statements like “nobody rides the trains anymore” or “there are no trains in America today”, the reality is that Amtrak, the often-neglected but still surviving passenger rail service of USA does run a few cross-country trains that offer a relaxed, comfortable way to enjoy the beauty of this huge country.

Long distance train travel is more than just the scenery. Unlike air travel where everyone sits in silence waiting for the trip to get over, on the train the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed and social. A part of it is thanks to Amtrak’s communal dining policy- you are encouraged to share tables with random co-passengers and this leads to some memorable conversations. Over my numerous journeys I have met Amish families, two grannies in their eighties who decided to spend the last years of their lives traveling far and wide by themselves, a Japanese tourist who did not speak a word of English but visits every year to see the country, a mom and her daughter starting a new life away from the abusive husband who had joined the drug cartel in Mexico, a couple celebrating their honeymoon, and the list goes on.

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So, where exactly can you travel by train? The answer is- anywhere across the country! Amtrak runs a variety of trains across 46 of the 48 contiguous states (guess the 2 unlucky states?) but some routes are obviously better than others. If I were to pick favorites, I’d say the five long distance routes west of Chicago are truly spectacular and provide the best experience- large reclining seats or private bedrooms, full service restaurant onboard, lounge car with huge glass dome windows and couches to chill out-  if you want to experience America by rail, pick one of these five and you won’t regret. 

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I have been on all five of these journeys, at least in parts, and from here on, I will mostly let the pictures talk for themselves. 

All pictures below are as-seen-from-train taken personally by me.

1. Empire Builder – Chicago to Seattle/Portland

The great northern adventure takes us from Chicago through Wisconsin, along the upper Mississippi river, through the endless farmlands-now-turned-into-oil-fields of North Dakota, lush green meadows of Montana, cutting through the heart of stunningly beautiful Glacier National Park, and depending on whether we go on the Seattle half or the Portland half (the train splits in Spokane), either a climb through the beautiful northern Cascades or a meandering run along the Columbia river gorge. 

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2. California Zephyr – Chicago to San Francisco

Some have called this the most beautiful journey in America and there is probably good reason to it. Starting from Chicago, we run through the vast corn fields of Iowa and Nebraska to Denver, from where starts the climb into the Rockies, following the Colorado river, meandering through narrow canyons, opening up to the high plains of Utah to Salt Lake City, continuing into the desert of Nevada, cutting through the Sierra Nevadas down to the City by the Bay. 

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3. Southwest Chief – Chicago to Los Angeles

Fancy yourself a ride literally cutting across the country? This is it. We start southwest from Chicago across Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, the greenery of farmlands gives way to vast arid plains of New Mexico to Albuquerque, through Native American land, on to the beautiful painted desert of Arizona, navigating through the lower Sierras to the City of Angels.   

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4. Sunset Limited – New Orleans to Los Angeles

This is a truly southern adventure. Starting by trudging over Lake Pontchartrain out of NOLA, through the swamps of Louisiana, deep in the heart of Texas all the way from Houston to El Paso, literally hugging Mexico, through the desert of lower Arizona to the lights of LA, this is a deep dive into seeing up close how vast this country really is.

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5. Coast Starlight – Los Angeles to Seattle

Love the Pacific coast? Here we go. From Los Angeles to San Jose, we travel for hours along the beautiful blue Pacific coast, revealing hidden gems not accessible even by the famous Highway 1. The fun does not end here. Going north, we pass by Mt Shasta meandering into the remote Cascades mountains to Portland. For the finale is the run along the Puget Sound to Seattle, photogenic every minute.

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Go ahead, the next time you are planning a vacation, add a train journey to it. Or, if short on time, make that itself the vacation- the journey is the destination! It could end up being an experience of a lifetime. All aboard!

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If you are wondering, no, this post is NOT an ad for Amtrak nor an endorsement. 

Ni Hao! Beijing and the Great Wall

Ni Hao! Beijing and the Great Wall

China is a country that has fascinated me since forever but it usually does not feature among top tourist destinations for most people, what with the fear of language barrier, unsuitable food, or the tight government control on communications including the (in)famous Great Firewall of China. Keeping all that aside I decided to make a quick trip to the Land of the Dragon in winter of 2014. I visited Beijing and the Great Wall of China all by myself without any local guides or help, and you can do it too.

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A little background before starting in Beijing. I got a Chinese single entry tourist visa from the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. It is a pretty painless process, just submit a few forms and flight tickets, and receive the visa a week later. My Chinese experience starts right from the United States as I am booked on Air China to Beijing. China has a ton of airlines, some sketchier than others, but being the national flag carrier, Air China is among the good ones in the lot. They operate all of their China-US flights on brand new Boeing 777s that are pretty comfortable. The in-flight entertainment is predominantly Chinese (I heard Chinese folk music for 10 hours!) and the meals, especially the vegetarian ones that I had requested, I will just leave this one pic here.

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Beijing Capital International Airport is humongous, and at the early hour when my flight arrived, it is pretty empty, looking like a giant movie set. As I walk towards Passport Control, the guy tells me that for stays less than 72 hours long, there is no visa needed! (If you are not a US citizen, do not rely on this) Immigration is quick and painless and the airport is directly connected to the city by Beijing Metro’s Airport Express line. One bummer is that this is a “special line” and hence at the airport you can neither buy nor use the Beijing Transportation Smart Card which will be very useful everywhere else. So I pay cash, get onboard and in about thirty minutes it drops me at Dongzhimen station which is a major transit hub and has connections to 3 subway lines going to different parts of the city. But before going anywhere else, I need the Smart Card. One can buy the card from vending machines but the instructions are in Mandarin only, but thankfully I see a manned ticket counter where a lady who understands just enough English sells me a card.

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Beijing’s Subway system is amazing. There are 15 (and growing) lines taking you from any corner of the city to another, and the trains arrive every 2-3 minutes so there is never a wait. Also, the maps and station announcements are in English too, so I have no problem navigating through it. My first target is to go to The Great Wall without needing any local guide or help, and the easiest way to do it is by train. There are several trains during the day that depart from Beijing North (Bei) railway station to Badaling, from where the Great Wall is a 15 minute walk. There are also buses from Beijing to Badaling but from all I have read beforehand, getting the right bus is tricky if you do not speak the local language (also, given a choice I always take train over bus!). To reach Beijing Bei, I have to battle the office commuters on one of the most crowded subway lines but it is a short 15 minutes ride and I am deposited at Xizhimen station. All this was underground and inter-connected and finally I step out in the Beijing cold, and freeze immediately while trying to look for the entrance to the long distance train station.

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Beijing Bei is the smallest and least crowded of Beijing’s four main railway stations, and as a result, there is almost no English signage. But I have read that all trains to Badaling have numbers “S2XX”. I see a queue forming in front of a sign saying “S2” and a lot of Chinese stuff so my best guess is this is the right place. With about half hour to the train’s departure I wander into a convenience store and play a blind date with snacks. I have no idea what any of the labels mean, so I pick up a couple of cheap snacks that look good and safe (no lizards or cockroaches!). Now comes the fun part- the trains to Badaling are unreserved, so the moment the door to the platform opens, everyone makes a mad scramble towards the train, running to grab the best seats. I join in it too half heartedly, but find comfortable seats nevertheless.

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The ride from Beijing to Badaling is pretty comfortable and scenic- starting from the suburbs of Beijing (that are not scenic) slowly climbing up the mountains. The journey takes about two hours and the station of Badaling is so basic and barebones that one might end up wondering if this is really where we get off to go to a wonder of the world? Turns out, yes. The temperature is below freezing, with strong cold winds and the 15 minute walk to the entrance of the Great Wall ends up being quite a challenge to keep myself alive. I quickly buy the ticket, walk up to the Great Wall, which is quite underwhelming in a way, I mean it is just a wall. Literally. What is fascinating is its history and the length of it which you cannot truly appreciate from any single spot. I brave the biting cold and freezing winds for a few pictures, been there done that, and right away start walking back towards the station. I reach Badaling station right as the train is pulling in, and I still need to buy a ticket! If I miss this, I have to spend the next two hours sitting in the tiny shed, but thankfully not. The staff at the station who spoke no English understood my plight and punched out a ticket for me as quickly as possible, ran out to the platform to ask the guard to wait and made sure I board the train. Phew! Thank you random Chinese guys!

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The train has a cafe, whose attendant does not understand a word of English either. I try explaining him I want tea, and after a lot of effort he gets it and hands me one tea. Iced tea that is! No! Not in this freezing cold. I had downloaded Google Translate with Chinese language pack for offline use on my phone. Time to put it to good use. I type “hot tea” and show the equivalent Chinese output to the attendant and he exclaims “Aa! Cha!” D’oh! I should have guessed every ancient language has a common term for tea! Another two hour journey later, I am back at Beijing Bei, successfully completing a half day self-guided visit to The Great Wall. It is lunch time, which means it is time for pictionary and charades to explain the staff at the food court that I want vegetarian food. I had no hopes of either them understanding or them having something vegetarian, but surprise surprise on both fronts! The staff showed me not one but three vegetarian (no meat) items on the menu- a tofu curry, a roti-like bread and a salad. Success!

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After lunch, I hop on the ubiquitous subway again to take me to the most famous landmark in Beijing- Tiananmen Square. I step out from the subway to a sight of wide clean roads, well manicured lawns and imposing government buildings. Yes, this is the heart of the capital. Tiananmen is a highly sensitive and politically significant location, so everyone has to go through tight security. Although technically it is just a big open public square, it is cordoned off from all sides and every visitor is screened and ID or passport checked by armed military before being allowed in.

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Across the street from the square is the Forbidden City, which shall remain forbidden for me due to lack of time to go visit it (and also it is freezing cold). Instead I decide to go back into the warmth of the subway to go one station away to Wangfujing Street. This is Beijing’s Times Square meets food bazaar. The main street is lined with swanky malls selling electronics (such as the jPhone 6 which by sheer coincidence happens to look like the iPhone 6) and food chains like McD and KFC, but the inner bylanes are where the brave go (not me) to try out the famous Chinese “delicacies” such as fried cockroaches, lizards, snakes and other such gag inducing things.

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I have to wrap up my quick Beijing sightseeing here and take the subway back to Dongzhimen and from there the Airport Express back to the airport, but, one more thing. Apparently my tryst with China is to be longer. So a few weeks later, thanks to delayed flights and missed connections (a story for another time), I find myself in Beijing again with a day to spare.

Instead of sitting in the sad complimentary hotel room provided by Air China, I decide to go out again. This time to see the marvels of modern Chinese engineering. A little research and I figure out I can make a quick trip to the nearby city of Tianjin and back riding the Chinese High Speed Rail that runs at 300-320 km/hr making it one of the fastest in the world. So I head out back on the subway, this time to the other extreme of the city to Beijing South (Nan) railway station that is the hub of the national high speed train network. If nobody told you what it was, it is easy to think you are inside a major international airport. It is huge, specious, swanky shops and restaurants and “boarding gates” with no trains in sight. Beijing-Tianjin is a very busy route and high speed “bullet trains” depart every 15 minutes all day long! I go to the ticket counter and try my best to explain the lady to give me a ticket to Tianjin. I write down the train number on a piece of paper and that does the trick. Thank God the Chinese use English numerals. All these trains are fully reserved and you get a coach and seat number, so you have to make it to that train or lose the money. I, in my infinite wisdom, ask for a ticket to a train that is departing in 10 minutes! As a result, I end up making a mad dash up a huge escalator, across a gigantic concourse to the correct gate and found my train and seat just in time. Phew.

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If you have never been on a true high speed train like in Europe or Japan, this is an experience worth doing. We cover a distance of 135 km in 33 minutes, with a smooth quiet ride rushing past towns at 300 km/hr. I get out at Tianjin, take one look at the city and turn right around to buy my return ticket to Beijing, and guess what- unlike Beijing where the fancy high speed trains use a whole different station, here in Tianjin they use the same station and same ticket counters as hundreds of other trains going throughout the country. As a result I have to stand in one of the dozen odd long queues, not knowing whether it is even the correct one since everything is written only in Mandarin. Also, I use the word “queue” loosely since apparently it is considered normal in China for people to shamelessly break into the front of the queue, buy their ticket and walk away! After half hour of waiting (I could not afford to jump the queue. If they yell at me what do I say?) finally I reach the ticket counter, once again write the train number on a piece of paper, and thankfully the lady understands and issues me a correct ticket to Beijing. Woohoo I survive another round of pictionary!

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Once again we whoosh to Beijing in no time and once out of the station, I need to buy a subway ticket and do not have the Smart card this time. Fine, I will find a manned ticket counter and hope the person knows English, but no luck. This station does not have manned counters, only vending machines! Great! I scan around to find people who look like they might know some English and see a college going couple. I ask them if they speak English, the guy backs out and points at the girl. The girl replies in affirmative (I had read somewhere that your best bet of finding English speakers in China are college girls since it is a recent fad to learn English. Don’t ask me why only girls and not guys, I don’t know) and she helps me navigate the Chinese-only vending machine to get a ticket to Dongzhimen. This was the only time in my entire stay that I was handicapped by language and had to ask someone for help. From Dongzhimen it is easy to take the Airport Express back to the airport and bid adieu to this wonderful city. Zàijiàn, xièxiè. (Goodbye and thank you)

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–> Going to Beijing? My TripRatings:

Paperwork                    5 / 10

Need to apply for visa in advance. Immigration at airport fairly painless.

Language                       1 / 10

Without knowing Chinese, it is very difficult to navigate or interact with locals.

Food                                3 / 10

Vegetarians have a hard time, meat eaters beware of unexpected animals.

Transport                        9 / 10

Excellent public transit, great inter-city train and bus options, modern airports.

Connectivity                   3 / 10

Google, Facebook, Twitter are banned. Whatsapp works. Wi-fi easily available.

Entertainment                7 / 10

History, music, arts you name it. Language can be a slight barrier.

Shopping                          8 / 10

Everything is Made in China, what more to say? Beware of fakes and bargain hard.

Slow Train Through Saurashtra – Part 2

This is a continuation from Part 1

Map of the route for the journeys covered in this part-

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These are the trains we take during this trip-

  1. 19221 Somnath Express from Ahmedabad to Veraval (pink)
  2. 52929 MG Passenger from Veraval to Dhasa Jn (red)
  3. 59226 Mahuva-Bhavnagar Passenger from Dhasa Jn to Dhola Jn (yellow)
  4. 09232 Bhavnagar-Bandra Special from Dhola Jn to Joravarnagar (blue)
  5. 19222 Somnath Express from Surendranagar to Ahmedabad (green)

– – – – –

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Somnath Express ready for departure from Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad’s Kalupur railway station is a beehive of activity at night with trains arriving from and departing to all corners of the country every few minutes. My train, the Ahmedabad-Veraval Somnath Express is boarding from platform 10. By some stroke of luck, Abhishek who booked the tickets has managed to get three window seats for all three of us- we have lower berth, lower berth and side lower berth! I volunteer to take up the side berth which has relative lesser legroom, but is compensated by having two windows to myself, a decision I soon regret as the windows refuse to close shut tight, leaving a thin slit letting in chilled wind as the train gallops at over 100 km/hr through the cold winter night. I bundle up myself in a bedsheet, get some half-decent sleep and the next thing I know is we are pulling into Veraval bang on time, well before sunrise.

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The Retiring Room at Veraval station is clean and functional

We have precisely three and half hours before our next train departs, so we head straight to the ticket counter and enquire if there is a retiring room available. It turns out there is one available, but it has no hot water because “the solar has stopped working”. Fine, we will take it. The retiring rooms sit just outside the station building and are quite decent for the price. I have no intention of taking a cold water bath after suffering the wrath of cold wind all night long, so I just dump my bags in the room, and off we go to squeeze in a quick trip to the famous Somnath temple (after which our train was named). A high-speed rickshaw ride through empty streets deposits us at the temple basking in the golden rays of the morning sun. The temple complex sits at the edge of the sea, with spectacular views, but alas, paranoid security concerns mean we are not allowed to carry camera or cell phones to photograph this beautiful place. Just outside the temple is a not-so-clean food stall preparing fresh hot Gujarati delicacies- jalebi, fafda, dhokla and masala chai. For a moment I worry about the hygiene of the place, but the sights and smells are too tempting and I give in. A hearty breakfast, and another breakneck speed rickshaw ride later, we are back to Veraval Junction to start our journey through the hinterlands.

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Somnath temple shines in the morning sunlight

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Veraval station overview. Meter gauge lines are in the right side corner

Our plan is to take the 9.40am Meter Gauge passenger from Veraval to Dhasa Junction reaching at 4.40pm, and connecting there to Broad Gauge passenger departing at 4.46pm to Dhola Junction. This six minute layover to change trains, including buying tickets was worrying me, but thankfully at Veraval they issue direct MG-BG combined tickets to Dhola Junction! That’s one less thing to worry now. Like everywhere else today, the meter gauge operations at Veraval are relegated to one corner, with most of the prime property taken over by the big brother mainline operations. Our seven coach train is already fairly full but a little walking around fetches us an empty bay with two windows, again with one Emergency Window with no bars. We depart right on time at 9.40am, and the landscape outside Veraval leaves me surprised. There are coconut palms, and abundant paddy farming. This is something I associate with coastal Kerala, not Saurashtra which, in my ignorant mind, was all dry and arid. The train stops at all stations, once every few minutes but the stops are extremely brief, most of them taking less than a minute. In about half an hour, we reach the first major stop- Talala Junction.

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Delvada-Veraval Passenger is already waiting as we enter Talala Junction

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My train- the seven coach Veraval-Dhasa Passenger stopped at the other end at Talala Jn

Talala Junction is a tiny station, with just one low platform and three additional tracks. The platform line is already occupied by the Delvada-Veraval Passenger that arrived before us, and transfer passengers are waiting on the tracks to board our train. The crowd settles in few minutes and I expect we will get going soon, but I am told that is not the case. A third train, from Junagadh and heading to Delvada (see map above to get an idea of the routes) is yet to arrive, and only after all three trains have arrived and passengers given a chance to transfer from either to all, will each of them depart. Oh the logistics! Since all these meter gauge lines in these rural areas see only one or two trains a day, the timetables are well synchronized so that passengers get an option to travel from anywhere to anywhere in the network. Since we have about half hour of wait remaining, I make friends with the local villagers sitting beside us, ask them to take care of our seats and bags, and get out to wander. Our train’s driver is also wandering outside. A brief chat with him reveals that the journey ahead through Gir National Park will be done at a restricted speed of 30 km/hr to avoid chances of wild animals being run over by the train.

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Junagadh-Delvada Passenger gets the signal to enter Talala Jn, completing the trio

About forty minutes of wait later, a gateman goes to the outskirts of the station, manually lowers the semaphore signal, clearing the route for Junagadh-Delvada passenger to enter. As soon as that train arrives, and transferring passengers given sufficient time to jump across to our train, we get the first clearance out of the three trains to leave. Back in the coach, the locals have realized we “tourists” are the odd-men-out on this train, so they decide to be our local guides, telling us everything from history and geography of the region to what wildlife can be seen where. This is the best part of traveling in rural India- it takes no time for strangers to open up and help. The six minute connection we have to make at Dhasa is still bothering me, so I ask the locals how often is the connection made successfully. The answer is unanimous- “100% guarantee. You will make it!” Well, I like the confidence.

IMG_3656Waiting at Sasan Gir for a crossing with our sister train from Dhasa

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Sasan Gir reminding passengers of its most famous attraction

After an hour of slow trundling, we arrive at Sasan Gir, the main entry point for Gir National Park. The tiny station is nicely set in the middle of the forest. The timetable shows this to be a two minute stop, but locals tell otherwise. Since the entire route is single tracked, we have to wait here for about 45 minutes for the train from opposite direction to arrive and cross us. It’s a daily ritual, not documented in the timetable. Well then, again time to get off and explore. On one side of the train, about a dozen monkeys have gathered, sitting patiently for passengers to feed them. This, too, is a daily ritual, the monkeys know the train timings and show up daily without fail. On the other side, a sole food stall is making brisk business selling masala chai and cold drinks. An enterprising jeep driver waits at the station entrance, hoping someone has last minute change of mind and decides to get off here and go on an impromptu safari into the sanctuary.

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These monkeys know the ritual- wait for train, get food

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The sole ticket window at Sasan Gir has a lot of information and instructions!

After waiting for what seemed like eternity, finally the train from Dhasa makes an appearance from the thick foliage and comes to a stop next to us. For some reason, most of these single line sections seem to follow a Last-In-First-Out approach, so that train gets the go-ahead first, with just a brief two minute halt, while we have to wait few more minutes to get the clearance to proceed. As soon as we are out of the station, the locals tell us to be ready with cameras to capture any wildlife we may encounter by the trackside as we make our way cutting across the national park. Sadly no lions to be sighted on this free local-villager-guided-safari, but we do end up seeing a few peacocks and a few deers, apart from a bunch of monkeys monkeying around here and there. The next station, Kansiya Nes, is just a tiny cabin in the middle of the forest, manned by one guy who is the station master, and the flag man, and the support staff all by himself. This is not the kind of place I would want to be at night, and suddenly I consider myself to be a lot luckier to have a fixed desk job in a city.

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Can you spot the train in the forest? Just outside Sasan Gir

The slow 30km/hr restricted speed crawl continues up to the next major stop- Visavadar Junction. It’s lunch time and I was hoping to get some food from here, but no such luck. The solitary food stall at the station does not have anything except some biscuits and chips. So, we will have to dig into our backup plan- the ever-present Gujarati travel food: thepla that we picked up previous night from Ahmedabad. But this place does have a solution to another problem we had been struggling with- the Emergency window has a shutter that keeps falling down, blocking our view and rendering the window useless in case an emergency comes up. One of our co-passenger who had gotten off at the station, returns with some rope. It then takes three engineers and two villagers to come up with an ingenious jugaad to tie the culprit shutter in place, finally giving us the fully open emergency window.

The run from Visavadar to Amreli, probably the biggest town along the route, is quite boring, and sedate. After Amreli it turns even slower, and we are losing time fast. I start getting skeptical of making the connection at Dhasa, but the locals are still calm and confident. Turns out, the extremely slow crawl after Amreli is due to unusually heavy rains washing away the soil under the tracks last year, and this section in the boonies is being neglected by the railways. We gather a lot of delay, but finally pull into the last major stop along the line- Khijadiya Junction. Here we join the Dhasa-Jetalsar line which seems to be the best maintained so far, and difference is felt immediately. The driver takes to no time to accelerate all the way to 75 km/hr, the maximum speed allowed for meter gauge trains today. The next fifteen minutes are like an action-packed climax to a boring movie and we finally pull into Dhasa Junction at 5.00pm, 15 minutes late, and 9 minutes beyond the scheduled departure time of our connecting train. Fortunately or unfortunately, the connecting passenger is also running late, so we will be able to make the connection! The locals gave a “We told you so” look as we get off and walk across to the opposite platform.

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Bored passengers at Dhasa wait on the tracks for Mahuva-Bhavnagar Passenger

The broad gauge side of Dhasa Junction is crowded with passengers waiting for the passenger. We step out of the station for some chai, again served in extremely miniature cups, and get back just in time for the passenger from  Mahuva to pull in. The train is already completely crowded, but thankfully we have to travel only three stations to Dhola Junction so we squeeze in and I manage to get some standing room by an open door. Our original itinerary involved having to wait three hours at Dhola Junction to get the connecting train to Surendranagar, but it we are told there is a Bhavnagar-Bandra holiday special train running before it, which will cut down our waiting time by about two hours! Apparently this “holiday special” runs all year round, since the locals seem to know of its existence too. As we were talking about our further plans, a guy sitting by the door quipped in- “You guys are in luck. Today is Sunday, you will get Bandra Special now!”

A quick thirty minute ride drops us at Dhola Junction. This was once an important junction of the Bhavnagar State Railway built and run by the local rulers, not the British who built most of the other railways. This is evident in the station architecture, built in traditional Gujarati style. We purchase tickets to Surendranagar, confirming from the ticket issuer that the “Bandra special” is real and will run today. There is a small issue though- this train does not go to Surendranagar main station, instead it stops at a small station in the suburbs of the town called Joravarnagar and bifurcates from there. Not a problem, if it saves us two hours of waiting here, we will get off at Joravarnagar and hopefully there will be rickshaws to take us to Surendranagar from there. The sun has set, there are hundreds of parrots living on the trees at the station who are creating quite a racket. About fifteen minutes past its scheduled time, the Bhavnagar-Bandra Holiday Special arrives, its general unreserved coaches fairly empty. We find good seats, and in a rare turn of events, nobody is really keen on sitting at the window seat since it has gotten dark and the fast  running train’s cold wind hitting you is no fun.

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The station building at Dhola Junction, reminding of its Bhavnagar State Railway roots

The holiday special gets pretty good priority on this section and it drops us at Joravarnagar right on scheduled time. The station itself is tiny- one platform and a small building, but thankfully there are about a dozen autorickshaws waiting outside, all their drivers come rushing at us to get our business. We cannot get an auto rickshaw all to ourselves for three people, we have to share it with as many as can fit in. I end up sitting next to the driver in the front, holding on for my dear life as we made our way at crazy speeds through dark roads and narrow lanes to eventually reach Surendranagar station, in one piece thankfully.

We had taken for granted that the main railway station of a major town like this one would have dining options nearby, but boy we were wrong! The station sits by itself in one obscure corner of the town, with nothing nearby. The station itself has just one refreshment room which looks quite sketchy so we give it a pass. Well, we will have to go back into the town then, but where? I figure the best person to ask would be the railway police men busy gossiping. One of them suggests- “there is one nice restaurant opposite Milan cinema. I don’t remember its name, but if you go there and look its right there”. Not knowing anything better ourselves, we decide to go on this hint, hailing an autorickshaw to take us to Milan cinema, wherever that is. I have taken a bunch of crazy rickshaw rides in the last two days, but nothing even comes close to this one. This guy would give Fast and Furious a run for its money, the entire journey I spend thinking if I am going to die any moment now.  He drops us at Milan cinema, and everything around it is already closed for the night. I am almost regretting the decision to come here, but then I spot a brightly lit sign for a restaurant in a small bylane. We walk up there, open the door, and whoa! It looks like this is the sole restaurant in the town and the entire town is out here to have a weekend dinner. The cop was right, the food is really good, although very expensive by small town standards, and another rapid fire rickshaw ride brings us back to the station.

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Desolate midnight at Surendranagar Junction

Since we shaved off two hours of waiting at Dhola, it means now we have two more hours of waiting here than originally planned. The station is extremely boring and quiet, we find the waiting room that has good chairs and is completely empty, except the dozens of mosquitoes making their way in and out. Our train to Ahmedabad arrives at ungodly time of 1.30am, and it is only 10pm now, so the next three hours or so are spent uncomfortably sleeping in the waiting room chairs. We head out to our assigned platform at around 1am. The station is desolately calm, but soon a local passenger train arrives on the next platform, and it has an hour long halt at Surendranagar, so we will have company until our train arrives. Its 1.30am, but no signs of the train. No announcements either. But fifteen minutes later, quietly, the Somnath Express to Ahmedabad pulls in. We find our coach, everyone is asleep inside with all lights off. We get in and realize our assigned berths have been taken over by unreserved passengers to sleep. We immediately get to waking them up, they don’t realize what suddenly happened, so I switch on all lights in the bay, in the process waking up other passengers too. Five minutes of ruckus later, they get off and give us our reserved berths, and in the process probably half the coach will now be hating us for disturbing their sleep at this odd hour!

This time, luckily I have an upper berth, so no more unwanted wind draft freezing me. I manage to get a couple hours of sleep before we pull in right on time into Ahmedabad at 03.55am. An hour later, a bid adieu to Abhishek and Kaushik as they take the Karnavati Express to Vadodara, while I wait another hour to board the AC Double Decker Express towards Mumbai. Once again, like the Shatabdi previously, this train too runs to clockwork precision, and gives a fast and eventless ride back home, not anywhere as interesting as the slow train through Saurashtra.

Slow Train Through Saurashtra – Part 1

The inspiration for this trip came from this excellent travelogue written by Mohan Bhuyan back in 2006, and hence the almost similar title. One of my major gripes has been that in spite of being a Gujarati, I had never gone beyond Ahmedabad into the depths of Gujarat, and this trip is an attempt to fill that void. After weeks of scheduling and rescheduling, the final itinerary involves traveling 1,721 km hopping between 10 different trains all within a period of 48 hours. This is the route I take on this journey through Saurashtra.

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The route map. Meter Gauge lines are marked in red.

This is Part 1 of a two part series.

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It is said the journey of a thousand miles starts begins with a single step, and for me it starts stepping carefully through Borivali station that is already crowded with office going crowd at 6.30am. I reach the platform where the Shatabdi Express to Ahmedabad is scheduled to arrive in fifteen minutes, but it is currently occupied by Gujarat Express, also bound for Ahmedabad, but which we will overtake halfway and reach almost two hours earlier. As soon it departs, someone pulls the emergency chain and the train comes to an abrupt stop. Now starts the scramble to locate the on-duty staff who has to reset the mechanism inside the train for it to depart again. Repeated announcements over the PA system yield no results, the person in-charge has probably still not woken up. Fifteen minutes later luckily someone is found to do the task and the train finally departs, making space for my train.

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Last minute sprint to catch the train. Not for me though.

The Shatabdi Express was waiting for the track to clear up, it arrives immediately and departs after a brief 2 minute stop to pick up hordes of passengers. The train is packed- every single seat taken, thankfully I have a trackside window seat. The run up to Vadodara is eventless. The German design LHB AC Chair Car coaches of the Shatabdi are clean, comfortable and quiet. The Western Railway mainline from Mumbai to Vadodara works with clockwork precision and the high priority given to Shatabdi Express means we maintain our schedule up to the minute throughout the journey. The only thing noteworthy is that the catering menu has changed since I last traveled four years ago. The morning breakfast now has upma, two idlis with a small side of sambar, and two slices of bread with butter, quite a change from the ubiquitous veg cutlets that have been staple of railway catering since times immemorial. A bigger change though is the post-breakfast drink that used to be packaged mango juice has now been replaced with flavored milk. I drank the whole bottle, soon regretting the decision as my partially lactose intolerant tummy starts complaining and I have to spend the next two hours in mild irritation.

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Meals onboard the Ahmedabad Shatabdi – Breakfast, Lunch, Milk

At Vadodara, Kaushik, one of my partners-in-crime for this trip joins me. Lunch is served, again pleasantly surprised with the change in menu. The last time I had this lunch, the Paneer Whatever dish was exactly two pieces of paneer in a tasteless watery gravy. This time we get Palak Paneer with liberal amount of paneer and the gravy actually has a taste. The dal, rice and roti are quite edible too, and to wrap up there is vanilla ice cream, can’t go wrong with that one. Meanwhile, the run from Vadodara to Ahmedabad is agonizingly slow for unknown reasons, but thanks to a liberal schedule, we still manage to reach Ahmedabad ten minutes before scheduled arrival time at 1.00pm.

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The German LHB design Shatabdi coaches are some of the best in India

While wondering what to do in the couple of hours we have to spare before we start the journey into interior Gujarat, we realize a Meter Gauge passenger to Mehsana departs Ahmedabad at 1.50pm. For those unaware, some flashback- there was a time many decades ago in British-ruled India when thousands of kilometers of railways in the country ran on tracks (and as a result, coaches) narrower than what we see around today. It is said that this gauge was chosen by Lord Mayo (then Viceroy of India) based on calculations to allow 4 persons to sit comfortably abreast. However, in the 1990s Indian Railways came up with Project Unigauge to get rid of all Meter Gauge (MG) lines and convert everything to Broad Gauge. As a result, very few Meter Gauge routes remain today, mostly in rural areas, and they too are disappearing fast. So, I do not let go any opportunity that comes my way to ride these Meter Gauge trains wherever possible before they all ride into the sunset. Anyway, back in Ahmedabad, quick decision is taken to hop on to this MG passenger for a short joyride to Sabarmati, one station away. I run to the ticket window and ask for two tickets to Sabarmati by chhoti gaadi (“small train” as the MG trains are colloquially called these days). The ticket vendor gives the tickets with a surprised look- Sabarmati is just a hop across the river from Ahmedabad and there are many ways to travel there, this one easily being the most inefficient.

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Ahmedabad bound Meter Gauge train at Sabarmati

Back to the platform, the MG Passenger has filled up, all good seats taken. Anyway I am in no mood to pick a seat for a 5km journey, so decide to sit at one of the empty open doors. What was supposed to be a quick hop turns into an ordeal as we are stopped just outside Ahmedabad station to let another train pass, and then after crossing the Sabarmati bridge, stopped again for no apparent reason. Fed up, and with the station in plain sight a few hundred meters away, we decide to hop off the train, walk the remaining distance to Sabarmati and take a rickshaw to Gandhigram, our next destination. The rickshaw driver looks like practicing for Formula One, racing through the traffic and deposits us at Gandhigram station in fifteen minutes flat.

Our third member of the party- Abhishek joins us here. Our train to Veraval leaves only at 10pm, so its time to do another meter gauge joyride, the difference being, this one was pre-planned as a part of our itinerary. The meter gauge trains to Botad once used to run from the main station at Ahmedabad but the line through the heart of the city had 23 road crossings, so every passing train used to cause massive disruption to road traffic. To solve this problem, a few years ago MG operations were shifted to Gandhigram station at the fringe of the city. This has, however, not reduced the popularity of this route, and it remains one of the most well patronized Meter Gauge trains in the country today, used by thousands of commuters working in Ahmedabad and living in nearby towns and villages. We are at the ticket window, but with one small problem- we don’t know where are we going! Going all the way to Botad would not bring us back to Ahmedabad in time for our night train to Veraval, so we need to decide a random intermediate station from where we can get a connecting train back. Studying the timetable reveals two possible candidates- Moraiya or Bavla. We don’t know anything about either of these places, so I quickly check Google Maps on my cell phone and decide we will go to Bavla since it appears to be bigger of the two villages, so greater probability of finding an alternate transport back in case our connecting train never shows up.

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Ahmedabad-Botad section still runs on old-school semaphore signals

The popularity of this route is evident as soon as we enter the platform. The 3.50pm passenger is brought in as 3.20pm and within a minute it fills up completely! And this is not a small train either- it is full 13 coaches long, which must be some kind of record for MG trains surviving today. Some swift use of skills developed during years of catching overcrowded Mumbai local trains results in us getting two window seats, including an Emergency Window with no obstructing rods on the windows. Soon all the seats around us are taken up, the crowd mostly being local villagers. The train departs dot on time at 3.50pm and the first few kilometers through extended suburbs of Ahmedabad are traveled with the horn blaring loudly continuously in an attempt to shoo away humans, two-wheelers and animals who carelessly wander onto the tracks.

As we slow down for the first scheduled halt at Sarkhej, Kaushik decides to whip out his camera to record the rise and fall in intensity of the incandescent bulb and the fan inside the coach, both of which are fed by battery that charges by a dynamo off the motion of the train, much to the amusement of our co-passengers. To add to the fun, Abhishek and I open up my trusted Great Indian Railway Atlas to study the route, making us look like a full-fledged research party out on some mission. After a couple of attempts to record the fan-light-intensity-change routine with little success, Kaushik decides to interview the co-passengers about the history of this route and if they have any anecdotes or memories about other Meter Gauge lines in the area that are now abandoned. Unfortunately he is hit by language barrier since the locals speak only Gujarati and Kaushik speaks Hindi. This is when I have to join in as the interpreter since I understand both languages- translating Kaushik’s Hindi questions and asking them to the locals in Gujarati and re-translating their Gujarati responses back to Hindi for Kaushik. This goes on for about ten minutes, ending with disappointing information that once upon a time there used to be a railway line going beyond Botad but nobody knows when why and how it was abandoned.

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The ubiquitous Indian Railway fan and almost-extinct incandescent bulb lighting

At 4.40pm, we reach Bavla, a moderate sized station with one platform and three additional tracks. A surprising thing I notice is that the platform is super long, probably long enough to accommodate 20-25 coach trains, probably a hint to the past glory of this now skeletal network, when many long trains would be passing through here. Our returning train to Gandhigram is scheduled to arrive at 5.15pm, before that we need to purchase tickets. I was hoping this small station might still have the old style card tickets that pop out of a mechanical machine, but no such luck. Everything is computerized and we get the same boring printed tickets like any other station. The sole food stall at the station is boiling fresh hot chai. We decide to get a cuppa and are handed out the tiniest plastic cups I have ever seen, holding less quantity of chai than liquor shots! Cost cutting measures, we are told.

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Solitary Tea Stol (Stall) at Bavla

It’s 5.15pm, but no sign of our train. No announcements about any delay either. 5.25pm, still no signs of the train, no announcements. I walk up to the station master’s office to enquire but am stopped by a signalman waiting outside. I ask him when the train is expected, and get a rather obscure reply- “Soon. It comes everyday, will come today too”. Things in these small towns are a lot laid back, unlike the city. Well, no option but to accept it. Wait and watch.

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Bavla is one of the major stations along the line, seeing considerable crowd movement

Finally at 5.45pm, the semaphore signal drops and the station bell is rung, signaling the arrival of the train. Five minutes later, the train arrives, reasonably full but having few vacant seats here and there. I find a seat next to a young couple, most likely college students, and the next 30 minutes are spent silently observing what symbolizes India today- a society transitioning from conservative and traditional to liberal and modern. The guy and the girl are sitting as close to each other as possible to show their affection, but constantly making a conscious effort to make sure no part of their bodies physically touch each other, so to not ruffle any feathers among the elderly seated opposite them. Since it has gotten dark and I don’t have a window seat, I decide to pass time eavesdropping on their conversation. The guy is talking about how lazy he has become about cooking ever since he moved to a hostel and the girl is giving him easy-to-cook recipes and explaining the importance of eating healthy. The conversation then wanders between how a mutual friend from the village made it big in the city (Ahmedabad) and has purchased an apartment “costing Rs 50 lakh!” to one of the cows in the family back in the village having given birth to a calf and back to some discussion about merits of milk products when one statement by the guy catches my attention- “you know, in the European country of Bulgaria, they eat so much curd and yogurt and due to that the entire population stays healthy!” Where did this come from?!! I am not going to go check the validity of the claim, but the sheer confidence with which he brought up this random piece of trivia completely blows my mind!

Meanwhile the train has made its way back to Gandhigram and its time to get off. I want to visit Manek Chowk for dinner, Ahmedabad’s street food heaven, but I am told we are too early for it since the street food stalls open for business only past 9pm and go on until 2-3am. Instead Abhishek who has lived in the city for a few years and knows the local places well decides to take us to Municipal Market where one can find incredible delicacies such as Chocolate Cheese Pineapple Grilled Sandwich that I risk to experiment. It turns out to be surprisingly good. This along with mango juice followed by traditional sweets has filled my stomach enough to last through the night. We quickly pack up some snacks for the journeys ahead and another Michael Schumacher-wannabe rickshaw driver deposits us back to “Kalupur” station (that’s what the locals call Ahmedabad’s main railway station) to continue our journey further into Saurashtra.

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Chocolate Cheese Pineapple Grilled Sandwich, an Ahmedabad specialty

To be continued in Part 2

Off the Bucket List- Area 51 and The Extraterrestrial Highway

Off the Bucket List- Area 51 and The Extraterrestrial Highway

Area 51. Ever heard of it? Several Hollywood science fiction movie plots have featured this apparently super-secret military installation where all sorts of, well, out-of-the-ordinary experiments are conducted. Because of the US government’s reluctance in providing any information about this facility, it has created numerous conspiracy theories, including some people believing that Area 51 is not just a military base, rather it is a research facility where aliens and extra terrestrial vehicles who happen to visit Earth are captured and researched. This belief further gathered steam with the release of the 1996 hit movie Independence Day. Since then thousands of curious visitors have traveled on the desolate road cutting across this region in the hopes of seeing something paranormal. That’s when the government of Nevada decided to play along and officially renamed the road as The Extraterrestrial Highway. 

Background aside, coming to the point. I have a bucket list of unusual places I want to visit in life, and somewhere at the top of this list was The Extraterrestrial Highway. Recently I had to move from Dallas to San Francisco and decided to detour off the normal route to tick this off my list, and it was so totally worth the extra day. The rugged beauty of this middle-of-nowhere route cannot be expressed in words so I will let the photos do the talking.

To get on to the Extraterrestrial Highway, drive 125 miles north from Las Vegas on US Highway 93 where you will be greeted, in the middle of nowhere, by a badly graffitied signboard signaling the start of the mythical road.

The first sign of something unusual going on at Area 51 is seen here. Driving through the desert on US 93, there is barely any cellphone coverage, with basic 2G data access. I take out my phone at this point and guess what- the great AT&T shows full signal strength with surprise, surprise- 4G data coverage! Unable to believe my eyes, I run a speed test right there, and yes, it’s true!

The first few miles of the highway descend through small hills into the never-ending vastness of Tikaboo Valley. To the left are high mountains behind which lies the elusive Area 51, or as the US Government likes to officially call it- Groom Lake Air Force Base. A few miles into the valley lies a rather strange, but well-known landmark called the Black Mailbox (which, as you can see, is actually white!)

This mailbox lies in absolute remoteness at the intersection of the highway and a dirt road. This dirt road heads straight into Area 51 and is patrolled 24/7 by Special Service agents in pick up trucks. Anyone attempting to drive towards the secret base is detained and the minimum penalty for doing so is a fine of $650. Maximum penalty is indefinite confinement in prison.

The dirt road from ‘Black Mailbox’ point heads straight into Area 51. Proceed on this and you are sure to bump into, what are locally known as the “Cammo Dudes” who’d have a question or two for you. My advice. Don’t go that way. Just don’t.

The only sign of life along the highway are cows. Lots of cows. (Hmm, I wonder if this is where aliens abduct cows?!)

Well, not just cows. There is some human presence too. The sole settlement along the highway is the tiny village of Rachel which has fully milked to its advantage its location and manages to attract thousands of UFO searchers, conspiracy theorists and curious tourists.

Yes, that population figure.

The most prominent landmark in Rachel, and all along the highway is the Little AleInn, a small restaurant that doubles up as a UFO and alien conspiracy theory museum, gift shop and even a small motel for enthusiastic campers who want to scan the night skies for traces of extraterrestrial phenomenon. To complete the experience, there is also a tow truck carrying a salvaged UFO.

Sorry, no valet parking for our inter-planetary guests.

Aliens have a message for dumb earthlings.

Beyond Rachel, its once again vast open plains for as far as the eyes can see, punctuated only by cattle roaming the open ranches. Driving through this landscape can be extremely boring or absolutely fascinating depending on your state of mind.

So during the drive, did I see any paranormal activities or sight any UFOs? Well, not really. Unless you count this-

What is that? I don’t know. The region around Area 51 is restricted airspace, so this can’t be a commercial airliner. Most likely some military planes on a test mission, but as long as we don’t know what it is, it remains an Unidentified Flying Object aka UFO!

Travel Tips: 

There are no fuel stations along the entire length of Extraterrestrial Highway and several miles before and after it, so make sure you fill up before hitting this road

Speed limit along this highway is 70 mph. Vast empty road may look too enticing  but don’t overspeed. Remember this route is constantly patrolled by cops.