Saturday, 19 July 2014

Himachal Travel Diary - Part 1

"Take Vaccations... go as many places as you can. You can always make money but you can’t always make memories."

Photo Courtesy :  Shubh M Singh on flickr.com

Day 1: Pune to Mumbai/ Mumbai – Delhi

The much awaited journey began on a beautiful Saturday morning from Pune. The entire trip was going to be of 9 days Pune to Pune. Out of which 5 days would be the actual time when we would be in Himachal and rest 4 days in traveling to and fro. It was the first big vacation we took after our Kerala trip 2 years back, so I was really looking forward to the trip. There was a slight anticipation also whether all the month-long planning would reap the expected dividend or not.

The weather had really tricked everyone this year. Every other year usually the monsoons arrive in Pune positively by the first week of June. This year however there were no signs of monsoon even on the 14th of June – the day we began our journey. We had one big suitcase, a trekking rucksack, a big camera sling bag and a laptop bag that A had to carry in case some work came up on the fly. I didn’t bother to take mine though, for me vacation meant total switch from office work.

We started at 7 AM towards the Pune station. Pragati Express was scheduled to start at 7:50 AM. Soon we settled down comfortably in our seats and the railway appointed vendors started taking orders for breakfast. They had limited offerings in veg and non-veg food. We ordered for a bread-omlette each. The food was pretty much okay-okay and cost us Rs.109. Later on many more third party vendors got on the train from different stops selling various snacks and breakfast items. The train had limited stops on the Pune-Mumbai route and we reached Mumbai Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus the erstwhile Victoria Terminus by 11:15 AM.  As soon as we stepped out of the air conditioned coach we were welcomed by the hot and extreme humid climate of Mumbai. We had to go to Bombay Central to catch our connecting train to Delhi. The pre-paid taxi stand was a small walk from the platform where we got down. CST to BCT taxi cost us Rs. 170 for a 5KM distance. Atrocious but there was no other way as we had a lot of luggage with us. The driver of our taxi was a very old gentleman who was constantly shaking when he walked. We were really doubtful regarding how he is going to manage the drive. But he drove pretty steadily all the way.

BCT is much smaller compared to CST but many important long distance trains to MP, Delhi, Punjab, Rajasthan etc. departs from this station. Our connecting train to Delhi was at 5:50PM same day hence the layover time was more than 6 hours. With so many luggage in tow a Mumbai Darshan option was out of question hence we had already booked a retiring room online to be able to rest during the waiting time. We saw the signboards which indicated that the retiring rooms were located on the second floor. And we could only see a winding ancient looking staircase going up. I was like, really you expect passengers to drag their luggage’s all the way up to the second floor via these stair! It was pretty unbelievable even by the government standards. So we decided to look around for any elevator around and we did find one eventually which looked like it was ready to crash land any moment. We pressed the button and waited for the lift to arrive. We waited and waited and waited but there was no sign of any lift whatsoever. With no other option left we decided to climb the flight of stairs. The big suitcase was very heavy and tugging it along the big steps of the staircase made us pant like a dog; we were just wondering how we would make it through the two odd floors. Fortunately when we reached the first floor we saw that someone had left the door of the lift ajar due to which the lift was not moving.  There were a couple of railways officials walking around who saw the lift door ajar but paid no heed at all. How very typical sarkari people least bothered about customer convenience!

We got into the lift which was as big as a pigeon coop and so lean that it could easily put Kareena’s zero figure to shame. We somehow squeezed ourselves and the luggage as two police personals pushed their way in. As we pressed the second floor button the pre-historic lift with grill door rattled its way to glory. During the onward journey we saw pigeons taking a siesta in the grooves of the walls along the lift passage, how they managed to get there is still a big mystery for us. We stood there transfixed like matches in a matchbox till it reached the second floor, scared that our slight movement might bring down the entire ancient structure.

Finally we reached the second floor. We walked down to the area which looked like a reception with an old wood table spread across at one corner. After the lift experience we half expected to find someone at the reception. But surprisingly there was someone indeed. It’s another thing that the person seated over there looked so ancient himself that we knew it wouldn’t be a seamless process checking into our rooms. His brows furrowed and he looked at us through his almost opaque glasses and we handed him the online receipt of the room reservation. He glanced it once and asked us our room number.

We were so exasperated, now how the hell were we supposed to know the room number, wasn’t it him who was going to give us a room number? But he kept saying “tell me the room number”. When we couldn’t, then he even said that this was not a booking receipt! We were at our wit’s end by then. When another passenger standing at the reception watching our little exchange intervened and said to the person, “Kaka this is indeed a booking receipt, you need to give the room number”. He still wasn’t able to understand and told us to go down to the booking counter and check whether this was really a receipt. I stayed back with the luggage while A went down. The heat was sweltering and I was melting like an ice cream. Somehow the person at the desk took pity on me and offered a chair to sit. Soon A was back. Seems like the room number was already mentioned on the receipt itself which none of us noticed. The person again asked us the number instead of himself checking. We told him and he handed us the keys.

We opened the precarious looking lock and entered the paradise of ancient things. The room was pretty big with a double bed, a wooden almirah, a wooden table with a vintage mirror and a side table. There was a single window at the farthest end of the room which overlooked the entrance of the station. The washroom was small, not very clean but at least not smelly or stained with spit marks. The European style commode however looked pretty out of place in such an ancient environment. Thankfully the shower was working because I was pretty reluctant to use the bucket and mug provided in the washroom. I was already sweating like a pig and took a quick bath to freshen up. The heat seemed like dementors from Harry Potter sucking out all the energy out of our body. As the travel and heat fatigue took over our bodies we decided to sleep for a while before heading for lunch. But all we could do was twist and turn in the beds. The fan above our head was spinning but only visually we couldn’t feel any air on us. I understood taking a bath was totally useless in this extreme humidity, as I was already sweating again.

We left the room at 1 PM to have lunch. The rusted lock was just a customary thing; anyone could break it with one blow. We had the expensive SLR and lenses, laptops, hard disk but there was no other option than to have faith on our lady luck and venture out. The lift this time came without giving us hiccups and we came down.

Bombay central is a small station compared to other big ones in Mumbai and all stored were in limited proportions. There were only two food junctions (Rajdhani and Comesum). We skipped Rajdhani as it serves only vegetarian food. Comesum restaurant at Pune station served excellent non-veg thalis at reasonable rates. With the same expectation we headed into the restaurant and were in for a big surprise. The price of everything was very steep and the menu looked pretty uninteresting. For a basic chicken thali having roti, rice, daal and chicken curry (one piece chicken) cost us more than 200 bucks for each thali. The taste was also pretty disappointing. We wrapped up the lunch quickly and went back to our room. Thankfully nothing was stolen or misplaced. We crashed on the bed and slept instantly.

We woke up at 4:50 PM. I couldn’t help taking another quick shower before leaving. By 5:15 we were on the platform where August Kranti was already standing. As luck would have it, our coach was at the fag end of the long station. We hurried huffing and puffing – we had to mark our territory before someone else encroached. It took us a good 7-8 minutes before we reached our berths. The only good thing among all this was we had got side upper/lowers berths so we didn’t have to share our seats with anybody else. The August Kranti Express is a very good train as we soon discovered. Service, cleanliness, food quality, comfort, washroom facilities everything was really nice. It was at par with the Rajdhani standard and hard to find anything unimpressive about the train.

We settled down quickly, the A/C inside was a real relief from the melting heat outside. The Rajdhani staff soon buzzed into action placing pillows, bedsheets and blankets at every berth. The pantry guy came and took our food orders for the entire journey. Being hard-core non-vegetarians it was all time non-veg for us – short and simple.

The train started and our anticipations soared with every kilometer it went. Both of us took out the books we had decided to read during the train journey. But the scene outside kept engaged. Soon we left Mumbai. The landscape was slowly changing outside. There was no rain but still everything looked interesting – the romance of train travel had caught on us. We entered the perimeters of Gujarat and A kept talking relentlessly about the time he was posted in Gujarat. The state looked spic and span. I kept looking outside while we talked. Slowly the last strains of the sun melted into the ink black darkness of the night. City lights dazzled us occasionally. Dinner was served around 8:15 PM. We made space for placing the food trays on the lower berth. Food served on train can be never expected to have the quality or taste of a good hotel. But the food served on August Kranti was amazingly yummy. Infact it’s the best food I have ever tasted on train. The menu consisted of Ma ki daal, Palak chicken, Veg pulao, Parantha, Dahi and ice cream. The daal was thick and creamy, succulent palak chicken seasoned to perfection, flavorful veg pulao and the paranthas tasted homemade – everything was finger licking good.

After the amazing dinner we settled down with our respective books. I was reading a Bengali detective novel by Suchitra Bhattacharya named “Kurie Paowa Pendrive”. I had deliberately picked up this book for the forward journey because it was based on a crime happening while a family goes on Himachal Pradesh tour. Reading about the place of travel was the ideal way to set the mood for the oncoming journey. Slowly all the uncles and aunty of the other berths went to sleep but we kept reading for a while. With most of the lights out, we could see the outside more clearly. Specks of light floated from traces of civilization far away. After a while tiredness slowly dawned on us and we decided to turn in for the day. The bed was already made and after a quick visit to the washroom we curled into our respective berths bidding each other good night. The rhythmic chugging of the train and the psychedelic effect created by lights straining through the curtains lulled me to sleep soon.

Continued in Himachal Travel Diary - Part 2.

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