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!

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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!

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.

In The Footsteps Of The Imperial Mail

It is a fine summer day in 1927. A Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company’s ship has just arrived at Ballard Pier in Bombay with passengers from England. They alight and ride a horse-drawn buggy to Victoria Terminus, a short distance away, where a cream and brown train of The Great Indian Peninsular Railway with a mighty maroon steam locomotive is ready to take its passengers on a 36 hour journey across the country to Calcutta. This is no ordinary train and these are no ordinary passengers. Each of them has paid eight times the standard rail fare to travel on this train complete with a fine dining restaurant and bedroom suites with individual bathrooms. This is the most luxurious train in the world of its times. This is The Imperial Indian Mail.

Cut to winter of 2012. The British have long disappeared from India. A much shorter and faster route from Mumbai to Kolkata cutting across the central plains has opened long back and almost all trains between the two metros now use that route. The most prestigious train between the two cities is now the newly started non-stop Duronto Express. The luxurious Imperial Indian Mail is long gone but as its last reminder, there still exists a train, nowhere as luxurious as its predecessor, which takes the long circuitous route from Kolkata to Mumbai as it originally existed during the British Raj, taking 37 hours to complete the 2177 km journey passing through six states, stopping at 48 stations along the way, and that’s the train I was going to board- train number 12321 Howrah-Mumbai Mail via Allahabad.


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The Imperial Mail route

I arrived at the sprawling Howrah railway station around 20.00 with two friends- RR and VI who were also traveling by the same train but in different coach than me, a little too early for the scheduled 22.00 departure of the Mumbai Mail and one look at the indicator display board confused me. It was showing “12321 Mumbai Mail Dep 01:00 PF 00” At first we ignored it, thinking the indicator might be malfunctioning but a visit to the Enquiry counter revealed what I had feared. The train was indeed scheduled to depart three hours late, and considering we were at the station two hours early, this meant a long five hour wait! Now,Howrahis one humungous station with 23 platforms and hundreds of trains departing throughout the day, so it is always buzzing with activity, but still, five hours is a long time to wait for the journey to start. We found the air-conditioned waiting room on the second floor of the main station building with a giant terrace overlooking the majestic Howrah Bridge, which was good to kill an hour or so.

Howrah Bridge at Night

Yet another friend CG was going to take the Mumbai bound Jnaneshwari Express departing at 23.00 (but reaching seven hours before I reach owing to its routing via the conventional shorter route) so once he arrived at the station, we headed to the big cafeteria in the concourse to grab dinner. Chaos ruled the place. It has a huge variety of food items displayed on the menu but on enquiry it was revealed that only dinner thali and biryani would be available, and for that too one would have to stand in a serpentine queue to first get a coupon and another one to get the actual food. Thankfully a Monginis outlet within the cafeteria serving mini veg pizza and spring rolls came to our rescue.

It was past 22.00 by the time we got our tummy full. CG’s train was to depart from Platform 21 in the so-called New Complex which is an extension of the originalHowrahstation built by the British and lies a long walk away from the main concourse. Having plenty time to kill, we walked all the way to see of CG, our luggage in tow, and back to the main concourse once his train had departed. Now it was time to wait for any announcement for our train. A large part of concourse floor was by now filled with poor passengers taking trains next morning but having no other place to spend the night. Once the last scheduled departure for the night was gone around midnight, the cleaning crews came out for their duty, while we waited, still clueless about the train’s departure time or platform. By 00.30 passengers started getting restless and some of them, including yours truly, started wandering around anxiously. Someone mentioned that the train always departs from Platform 9, and sure enough I saw enormous quantities of parcels and luggage being brought at the end of that platform to load into the Parcel Vans at the end of the train, so we decided to wait there, in anticipation.

At 01.00, the supposed-to-be departure time, an announcement was made in true Indian Railways’ ambiguous style “Mumbai Mail will depart from Platform 9 shortly”. No mention when it will arrive, no mention when it will depart. “Shortly” is all we need to know. By now we had figured out that the incoming train had arrived at 16.45, six hours late, and around 18.00 it had gone for primary maintenance, which takes about seven to eight hours. This means, even if the yard staff worked real hard, the train might be just about getting ready for its journey. In the next half hour, the same announcement as earlier was made about ten times. Still “arriving shortly”. Still no time of departure given. Finally around 01.35 the train was shunted back into the platform and the impatient crowd took no time to board the train. I had a AC 2 tier seat in a composite First AC + AC 2 Tier coach, numbered HA-1. RR and VI had AC 3 tier seats in B-2, two coaches away from me. My coach was a 1997 make vintage which had probably not undergone any overhaul ever since. Since I had booked my favorite Side Lower berth, I would have two windows to myself, out of which one was discolored and dirty. Thankfully the other window was relatively better off. Since this was such an old coach, there were no plug points, so I had to run to RR and VI to grab an empty power outlet in their coach to charge my dying cellphone overnight, before heading back to my seat, making the “bed” and lying down to sleep even before the train can depart. In my semi-sleep state I noticed we pulling out ofHowrahat 01.55am, almost four hours behind schedule.

I had a comfortable night’s sleep thanks to nice thick blankets and a good soft pillow provided and when I woke up we were at what is today probably the weirdest named station in India- Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Gomoh Junction. It was called a decent “Gomoh Junction” named after the town but then a certain influential politician decided to append the freedom fighter’s name to the station while keeping the town’s name intact too. One of the best parts about travel on Indian Railways is the feeling of waking up in a completely unknown place and finding a chai vendor to start off the day.

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A quick look at my copy of The Great Indian Railway Atlas revealed the delayed departure was going to be a blessing in disguise for me- instead of crossing it in darkness, the run through Gurpa-Gujhandi ghat (mountain pass) section would now be in soft morning light, so while all other passengers in the coach were still fast asleep, I opened the door and stood braving the cold winter morning wind blowing into my face. Soon the coach attendant came and asked “Kya janaab! Yahaan bahar kyun jhool rahe ho?” (Young man, why are you swinging at the door here?) I told him my desire to photograph the scenic run and that convinced him. He just smiled and went away.

Gurpa Gujhandi Ghat

A look inside the coach revealed all other passengers still fast asleep, curtains drawn, so I walked across two coaches to B-2 where RR and VI were already out at the door, occupying the coach attendant’s seat, and I joined them. A vendor from the Pantry car selling breakfast was stopped in his path and we ordered (and ate) our breakfast sitting at the coach attendant’s fold-down berth next to the door (and that means, next to the toilets too!). Others would cringe at this idea, but for us, it was fun, to have breakfast enjoying the cold morning breeze and the run through ruralBiharinto Uttar Pradesh awaiting the next major halt- Gaya Jn. At Gaya, an elderly Buddhist lady alighted from our coach, probably heading to Bodh Gaya where Gautam Buddha attained nirvana, and as soon as she was seen on the platform, a frail and elderly porter (coolie) walked up to her and to our surprise, asked in English “Where you go? Any more luggage inside?” Yes,IndiaShining!

The run after Gaya was smooth and the coach attendant had by now resigned to the fact that these three crazy guys are not going anywhere and made himself comfortable some other place, leaving the door and his fold-down berth for our use. An hour later, we slowed down for the long crawl across the Upper Sone bridge at Dehri-on-Sone. This 3.2 km long bridge, built in 1900 was the longest railway bridge inIndiafor 110 years before the bridge toKochi’s International Container Terminal took over the crown. Even today, the Upper Sone bridge is the longest bridge one can cross as a passenger in a train inIndia, since the other bridge is for freight trains only. The section from Dehri-on-Sone to Mughal Sarai is triple tracked and we had a good run since the slow freight trains were happy to be on their own different track. I peeped into my coach once and in spite of it being close to noon, even now everyone else was sleeping or lying down with all curtains closed. Don’t these people ever feel claustrophobic? So I decided to head back to the door and awaited the sight I badly wanted to see, one of the prime reasons why I took this train- the run through the gigantic Mughal Sarai yard that seems to go on and on for several kilometers. It is said to be the largest railway yard inAsia, and after looking at its expanse, I don’t doubt this claim.

Mughal Sarai, for those who don’t know, is the major railhead for the city of Varanasi, located a few kilometers away on the opposite bank of the Ganga; the famous Dufferin bridge (rechristened Malviya bridge now) that has formed the backdrop for several photos and movies shot in Varanasi connects the two towns. I was hoping to find some delicious authentic food to grab for lunch here but being at the 21st coach of the train put us way too back from all the food stalls, so I had to settle for the drab and boring lunch provided by the Pantry car. Post lunch I was feeling drowsy so I finally made some good use of the quiet environs of my coach to catch some sleep once we were out of Mughal Sarai, still maintaining the four hour delay we had started off with. At one point I woke up, saw we were crossing Mirzapur, and slept off again. When I woke up we were stationary in the middle of nowhere. A little enquiry revealed we were few kilometers out ofAllahabad and it was 4.30pm, which means the section controllers royally screwed up the once-prestigious Mail’s run between Mughal Sarai and here, adding almost two hours of delay in less than 150 km. Damn!

A couple of more unscheduled halts, a slow crawl over the kilometer long rail-cum-road double decker bridge over the Yamuna and a short parallel race with a freight train later, we pulled in to Allahabad at 17.15, a little over six hours behind schedule. To add to it, I spotted a sparkling new WDP-4B class EMD diesel locomotive standing ready for duty, spoiling my mood further. How? One of the prime reasons I wanted to take the Mail was because it used to be hauled by a pair of classic Alco WDM class diesel locomotives between Allahabad and Itarsi but off late they had instead started assigning it a single “modern” EMD diesel locomotive. I did not like this for two reasons- one, this “upgrade” was actually a downgrade for the Mail, reducing the total hauling power available from 6200hp (2x3100hp) to 4500hp, and two, I get to see truckloads of similar EMD locomotives in the United States, the fun of Indian train journeys is behind classic chugging Alco locos. Anyways, as they say, change is the way of life. The Mail reverses its directions at Allahabad, so the diesel loco was attached behind the last coach (which now became the first coach), the electric loco was detached from the other end, crew changed, train watered and we were out at 17.45, still over six hours behind schedule.

Pulling out ofAllahabad, we crossed the same Yamuna bridge once more, diverted from the line we had just come from, and stopped on a curve at Naini Junction. This station is crossed twice by the Mail, once before going toAllahabadand once after leavingAllahabadbut it stops there only once. Darkness fell little after we left from Naini, so I could not see anything in the entire non-electrified section betweenAllahabadto Itarsi. It was dark but the three of us continued to stay near the open door in B-3. I decided to sit on a small staff seat near the door and my posterior accidentally touched a fire extinguisher cylinder sitting in the corner and activated it. We tried plugging it but it was too late. Within a minute the entire corridor between B-3 and A-1 was filled with foamy white smoke. I ran across the coach and woke up the attendant happily sleeping in his cabinet and informed him about the “accident” and opened all the doors which quickly allowed the smoke to disperse, but the incident left a thin white layer over the floor in the corridor, a tell-tale sign of what had just conspired!

The dinner provided by Pantry Car was again insipid and tasteless and I ended up throwing away half of it. I tried my luck to get something to eat at Shankargarh and Manikpur but both being small-ish stations and my coach now being third from the loco meant we were too far from the food stalls, so I just gave up and decided to sleep, but not before wondering how stark contrast this is from the Imperial Mail of the past that had a well-appointed restaurant car for onboard meals! This night I broke my personal record for longest uninterrupted sleep on a train and woke up directly after ten straight hours of sleep when we were just departing from Khandwa Jn. At around 07.00, means we had maintained our six hour delay through the night. My first instinct was to go to the door and check out who is hauling us now, since we would have had our second loco change at Itarsi sometime in the night, and as expected, an old workhorse WAM-4 from class electric from Itarsi shed was now effortlessly pulling the 24 coach load. Soon we came to an unscheduled stop at a wayside station and the lowly Chhapra-LTT Express overtook us, no respect for the Mail anymore!

We pulled into Bhusaval Jn around 09.30 and the long halt was used to pay a visit to the locomotive and stretch out. In the meantime I realized my cellphone had ran out of juice completely, so I went to RR and VI but the charging point near their seat was being used by other passengers. So now I had to start the treasure hunt in search of an elusive available plug-point! All points in all the AC coaches were occupied, so I walked further ahead into the non-AC section. The non-AC Sleeper coaches have two charging points at one end of the coach, near the door, if present at all. First coach, no plug-points. Next coach, two plug points, both empty, so I happily plug in the phone, but no response. Both were faulty! Walk further ahead. At the next coach finally I found working plug-point, and not just that, also an empty door next to it and enjoy the breeze! I was impressed at the near-absence of any unreserved/ticketless passengers in the non-AC Sleeper coaches. I stood at the door, cellphone in one hand, holding it upright in a way that the charging cable reaches upto the plug point mounted high up, upto Jalgaon and then decided enough of this exercise, back to the confines of AC coach.

The run from Jalgaon to Manmad was through familiar farmlands ofMaharashtraso I decided to join RR and VI inside their coach and indulge in what is also an important part of Indian Railways travels- small talk with fellow travelers about anything and everything. Instead of reaching at teatime, we reached Manmad at lunchtime and not wanting to experiment with Pantry food once more, I grabbed a veg sandwich and mango juice from the station. Since RR and VI were getting off atNasik Roadto take a bus to Pune, all three of us decided to spend the last hour together at the attendant’s berth outside. We pulled intoNasik Roadat 13.45 and RR and VI made their way out as soon as possible to catch their bus while I returned to my original berth, only to realize that my phone had not charged enough in the morning and I need a plug point again! This time luckily in the 3A coach I found one entire bay of six berths empty with a plug point so I decided to make full use of it upto Igatpuri. At Igatpuri it was time for the third loco change of the journey, now the good old WAM-4 giving way to an AC/DC dual power WCAM-3 class electric loco for the last leg into Mumbai.

The halt at Igatpuri was quite long and the passengers were getting impatient by now. I wanted to be at the door for the run through the mountains of Thull Ghat so I waited outside until everyone else had re-boarded. Soon after the train started the coach attendant came to the door, saw me there, I just looked at him and said “Photos”, he probably remembered something from 24 hours ago, smiled and let me stand at the door, even suggesting that there is a “nice bridge ahead”, which I obviously knew! After two fairly long mandatory brake-testing halts we were at Kasara at 15.40 and I told a curious co-passenger that we would be at Kalyan in an hour which he refused to believe. The loco pilot lived up to my expectation and we were at Kalyan’s outer signal at 16.45, but then had to wait fifteen minutes for a platform assignment. I had tickets upto Mumbai CST but I decided to end my journey at this distant suburb of Mumbai and use suburban transport for the remaining journey home, bidding farewell to the train that had been my home for 40 amazing hours.

My Coach

Plane, Train, Bus, Cab and Walk!



This travelogue traces my journey from Mumbai, India to Blacksburg, Virginia, USA. Date: 25th to 27th Jan, 2011.

The route taken was-

Flight #1: Kuwait Airways flight KU 301 from Mumbai (BOM) to Kuwait (KWI)

Flight #2: Kuwait Airways flight KU 101 from Kuwait (KWI) to New York (JFK) via London Heathrow (LHR)

Plus, New York to Blacksburg, VA by a combination of several means of transport!

* * * * *

As I entered the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport by car, the scene left me stunned- the entire area around airport resembled a huge war zone, buzzing with construction activity even at 2.30am. One look around and you know something really big is going on- the Mumbai airport renovation and upgradation project is under progress on a mammoth scale. With 26th January just around the corner, security was high and the visitor’s lounge at Gate D of International Departures Terminal 2 was closed, so hundreds of passengers and their family and friends had no option but to sit down on the footpaths. Only this time I noticed Mumbai airport, knowingly or unknowingly, has flights to different parts of the world clustered together, and so around my flight to Kuwait, there were flights to Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Bahrain, Dubai and every possible Gulf city that you can name. As a result, the overall crowd at the airport was also very different than what it is around midnight when the Europe bound flights are clustered. As we waited for check-in to begin, the crowd profile made the airport look like a ST bus depot- one reason why I would not prefer flight via Gulf next time!

I was travelling with my classmate Bharat. After waiting for half an hour on the footpath, we decided it would be better off waiting inside so left for check-in at 3.30am. The check-in was smooth but Immigration had a serpentine queue, which took an hour. The security check was quite chaotic. Having got used to the US system of removing shoes, jackets, belt, mobile phone and putting everything through the X-ray scanner, I was preparing for the same but was stopped. Apperently the Indian system is different- you send your bag and laptop through X-ray scanner but keep wallet, belt and watch on and pass through a metal detector! Duh! Obvious enough, the metal detector beeps for every single passenger! Then a CISF constable manually frisks you and asks to remove all metal objects aside! No idea what the logic behind this is! Completing this rather comical procedure, we were into the gate area by  4:45am for our 6:00am departure. There were boards all around advertising “Free Wi-Fi at CSIA”. I decided to try if this was true. Took out my laptop and connected to CSIA Wi-Fi and then came to know the farce- in order to use the Wi-Fi, you need to SMS a code shown on the screen to some Indian number! What the hell! So, if you are travelling abroad and not carrying your Indian cellphone (true for most passengers), you cannot access Wi-Fi! Dumb!

As we waited at Gate 10, there were announcements of a Nas Air (first time in my life I heard this name!) flight to Riyadh from Gate 14 and some missing passengers. Even after repeated announcements, the missing man was not found and as a result half a dozen CSIA staff ran all around the gate areas, looking at ‘suspicious’ (read: illiterate) passengers and asking them individually which flight they were headed to. As I said, the crowd at this hour consisted of semi-literate labourers flying to Gulf countries to work at construction sites, most of them not knowing English, making life difficult for the airport staff. When the missing passenger was not found even after an hour, two Nas Air air hostesses and stewards also joined the wild goosechase all over the terminal! In the meantime our flight was ready for boarding and the staff announced that only passengers with pink Priority Boarding stickers should come to the gate to board, but who cares! The entire crowd sitting around got up at once and formed a big queue to board! Total ST bus depot environment! The crowd filled in quite quickly and we had a pushback at precisely 06.00am scheduled time.

The plane was a fairly old Airbus A320 with 3-3 seat configuration and no in-flight entertainment, not even the big screens at the center of the cabin! Around an hour after departure, dinner/breakfast whatever you call it was served and after that there was no option but to try and sleep until we reach Kuwait. We started our descend into Kuwait around 7:45am local time and for as far as the eyes could see there was sand and more sand with roads criss-crossing the desert. We landed at Kuwait International Airport at 8:00am and once out of the plane we immediately went to the Kuwait Airways Transit Helpdesk to enquire about our connecting flight. The lady at the counter was talking to a passenger whose flight was delayed and gave him a food coupon and busy in her own world, unknowingly handed over one coupon to me too although my flight was scheduled on time! Bharat suggested we go back to her and ask for one more coupon since we were two passengers but I insisted not to be greedy and enjoy one free coupon! Quickly grabbing sandwich and a cake with the free coupon we went to the gate where the Kuwait-London-New York flight was scheduled. On my previous flight I had noticed that there was hardly any security check at Kuwait airport but this time it was different. The previous day a suicide bomber had attacked Moscow airport so security was extra tightened. Security and boarding took an inordinately long time and just before departure the captain announced what I had already guessed- “I apologise for the delay in boarding. This is due to extra security checks requested by US and UK authorities!”

The Boeing 777-200 for this leg of the flight had individual TV screens for all passengers but how many of those worked, only time would tell. The take-off was over the main city of Kuwait giving some stunning views of the rather large city located with desert on one side and sea coast on the other. The plane had a 3-4-3 seat arrangement. Bharat occupied the window seat, I had the middle seat while a middle-aged Arabic man occupied the aisle seat. An hour into the flight the Arabic man got up and went somewhere, never to return, thus giving us one extra seat to spread out on! By now everyone had tried fiddling with their TV screens and 90% of them did not work. In our row, the screen for window seat worked for some time, the middle screen’s menu was controlled by aisle seat’s control panel (which I realised after an hour!) and vice versa. The middle screen worked but its sound did not, the aisle seat’s sound worked but screen did not! I gave up and rather spend time reading Kuwait Times newspaper which provided entertainment for a couple of hours. After the food was served, which was rather delicious Indian cuisine, I spent the remaining flight figuring out all sorts of different sitting/sleeping/crouching poses possible with two seats at my disposal but found none comfortable. The arrival into Heathrow was through rain clouds, spoiling any chances of seeing London city from air. We were given one hour to get out, pass security and come back to the same plane. From my previous experience at Heathrow I knew the security guys specifically tend to choose brown skinned (Asian) passengers for “random” checks so we ran through the overbridge to be ahead in queue giving enough time to go through the normal security and enhanced security. Luckily this time we were not asked to step aside for extra checks but after completing the security when we went back to our scheduled gate, there was a second security layer to be passed by all passengers. Not just us, our plane, coming from ‘suspicious location’ (Kuwait) was thoroughly frisked, delaying boarding by 20 minutes. Finally we departed at 11.35am local time, 35 minutes behind schedule.


This leg of the flight was also spent in fiddling with non-working TV screen and trying in vain to make the best use of two seats left to myself, but this time for entertainment I had a couple of free magazines and a free copy of The Daily Mail (which is a gossip newspaper like India TV!) which kept me occupied for quite a long time. The food this time had British taste samosas and Arabic taste falafel and dinner later was again pure Indian- paneer mutter, pulao, dal etc with mocha coffee cake. The food was so delicious on all legs it made up for the lacklusture in-flight entertainment. By some stroke of luck, we managed to cut one full hour from the 7 hours flying time and landed at JFK International Airport at 5.25pm local time, 35 minutes before time in spite of starting 35 minutes late!  After experiencing nice weather for a month, it was back to Ice Age with snow scattered all over the airport, but this was just the beginning. More snow adventure was yet to come. The customs, baggage claim and immigration ended swiftly in under an hour. As we were exiting from the terminal, a hefty African-American taxi driver shouted in Hindi- “Sir, gaadi chahiye kya?” What all one has to do to stay ahead of the competition! We went straight to the AirTrain station and took the train to Jamaica station from where we transferred to the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) train to New York’s Penn station. This gigantic station with tracks spread over three underground levels and dozens of platforms is quite a task to negotiate, especially in evening peak hours. We were to take the 7:35pm NJ Transit train but in spite of it already being 7:25pm, it was not announced which platform it would depart from. Finally the announcement was made at 7:30pm, after which we had to quickly locate the elevator to go down to platform with our luggage and enter the train before the office crowd fills it up. Fortunately it turned out to be an Express service halting only at Secacaus Junction, Newark and New Brunswick, thereby keeping out a lot of daily commuters who alight at other stations, especially Metro Park. Bharat got off at New Brunswick and headed home while I continued upto Trenton from where I changed over to a SEPTA train to reach Philadelphia’s beautiful 30th Street Station at 10:30pm and was picked up by a relative to spend the night at their place.

The next morning, there was unexpected snow and my aunt who was to drop me back to 30th Street station so that I could take a bus to Blacksburg, Virginia, had a hard time driving her car in untreated roads made slippery by rain and snow. What would have otherwise taken 15 minutes took us an hour and as a result the Megabus in which I had my ticket booked left before I could reach its stop! Aunt dropped me at the station and left for work, and I was left to figure out alternatives to head home. Thankfully the station has a huge beautiful concourse to sit and more importantly, Amtrak provides free Wi-fi in the station building without the need to register or have Amtrak tickets! Delta had already cancelled my New York-Roanoke flight due to bad weather and were offering me a flight from New York next day. The sole bus with connection to Blacksburg had also left so it was clear I would have to spend the day in Philadelphia, and more snow was predicted for the night and next day. My aunt, scared from skidding her car thrice earlier in the day told me it would not be possible to drive me back to station next morning if I stay at her place. Just then I realized one of my friend- Sriram stays in Philadelphia quite close to the station. I called him up and he gave me directions to come to his home by taxi, and I reached there while it was still snowing but no so much as to close roads. By evening the snow had stopped and things looked good, but it was the calm before the storm, quite literally. By 6.00pm it started snowing and got heavier by the hour and by midnight, 16 inches of snow had ravaged Philadelphia!

Next morning, Sriram had called for a taxi at 6:45am to take me to the station but with so much snow, no taxi was operating. The city transit buses had also ceased operations. Now there was only one option left- walk! So here we were, out on the snowed out streets of Philadelphia, making our way to the station trudging two bags along. It took us 30 minutes and was quite an exercise. Once at the station, I realised the Megabus service from Philadelphia was cancelled! And now enters the saviour- the huge Schedules indicator of Amtrak at the station concourse showed all services running and ‘On Time’! Immediately I bought a ticket from the counter for the 7.43am Northeast Regional service to Washington DC and waited in peace for its arrival. At 7.50am passengers were asked to go down to the platform and after ten minutes of wait, a 6 coach train completely covered in snow as if it had just played snowfight came in led by a shiny modern HHP-8 engine, with the ting..ting..ting sound of ringing bells. For some reason, even today, even the most modern high speed American trains always enter the station with a constant ringing of a bell on the engine, a practice from the 19th century! I found a window seat next to the empty luggage space, effectively giving me infinite legroom to stretch out and immediately after departure, the train speeded up to over 100 miles per hour, blowing snow from the tracks all around, almost like a mini snowstorm following the train all along!

We had a clinically perfect run until Baltimore and a few minutes after departure from BWI Airport station, the train came to a sudden halt in the middle of nowhere. First I thought it must be a red signal ahead, nothing unusual. But five minutes later, the conductor announced over the speakers in the coach- “Sorry folks. One of the pantographs of our engine has broken and we have lost power. Since the engine has two of those, we will now try getting the other one up and restart the train!” Damn! The most powerful, hi-tech and modern railway engine in America is also not immune to failure! This could not have come at a worse time. The train was scheduled to reach Washington DC at 9:45am and I had an 11:45am bus to take from DC. if I miss that connection I stay stranded in DC for one full day! 15 minutes passed, no luck. Meanwhile a DC bound Acela Express sped past us on the adjacent track, without stopping to help us. Another 20 minutes passed by and another Amtrak train came on the adjacent track, but this one slowed down and stopped right next to our train. The conductor announced after ten minutes- “We are evacuating this train and everyone will transfer to the adjacent train. All passengers are requested to come to the Cafe Car for evacuation!” I picked up my bags and rushed to the Cafe Car which was right next to my coach. They had put two small tables on the snow covered ground and all passengers were to climb down stairs, onto the two small tables and climb up into the Cafe Car of adjacent train. Our rescuer was the Carolinian, heading to Charlotte and had quite a few empty seats to every passenger from our train managed to find one in the new train.

The whole procedure took half an hour and we departed at 10.35am. Now every minute was crucial if I was to make the connection. The conductor announced we would be reaching DC at 11.05am and that made me feel a bit better. After a brief halt at Carrilton, we slowed down and the conductor announced- “We are reaching Washington Union Station. We will have a crew change here. Also, we will change from electric power to diesel power.” The rail-fan in me wanted to wait and see this power change procedure but there was no time. I ran up the concourse and straight to the taxi stand and asked the first available cab to take me to the Megabus bus stop. The driver dropped me there at 11.30am and a long queue of passengers waiting to board the bus to Christiansburg was a happy sight to see! At 12.00pm the hefty African American driver announced- our arrival time in Christiansburg is 4.20pm but I will make sure we are there by 4.00pm latest! Downtown DC to Christiansburg by car takes 4 and half hours without traffic, so I thought the driver was just being overconfident, but it was not to be. In spite of snow-induced traffic on I-66, he cruised through and stopped the bus directly at the stop in Christiansburg at sharp 4.00pm! A friend had come to pick me up from there by car and by 4.30pm I was finally home, after one heck of an adventurous journey!