Train Journeys- Past and Present

imageThe familiar bleak friable landscape interspersed with algae ponds, cattle and livestock in different stages of thinness grazing on non-existent grass, the sparsely cultivated fields, thatched huts, semi naked children chasing mangy dogs, men huddled on charpoys or walking listlessly with the familiar ‘lota’ (metal mug) for their morning ablutions, women head covered engrossed in washing, cleaning. I was aboard the Prayagraj train, named after my home town Prayag and present Allahabad, after a gap of nearly 20 years and sat glued to the window not wanting to miss out the familiar sights.

The excitement was visible as on night of travel I arrived at New Delhi station at two hours before departure time to a deserted platform and wondering if had got the day wrong. Maybe I had the Freudian fear of missing a train and arriving at railway stations two hours ahead of time though unlike Freud I did not associate train travel with death. For Freud ‘Dying is replaced in dreams by departure, by a train journey’. (Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis’).

imageMy misgivings proved wrong and within minutes the rush started and was in the surge was deposited near my berth, second ac sleeper top berth near the entrance and the toilet. I was looking to swap my berth for a lower one. Second AC has two berths instead of three of Third AC sleeper, but my frail appearance did not soften male hearts. As one person I requested put it ‘I have approached railway officialdom for lower berth of my choice months in advance’.

The ticket collector too was elusive and for a moment I was tempted to pass on some bucks, but an unbeliever in bribery, resigned myself to the continuous footsteps and the all-pervasive urine odor from the rusty, rickety toilets (one is western and other squat).

An overnight train, the Prayagraj, is ideal for business or work commute but not for viewing the dusty plains of North India. I was awake early morning, 4 a.m. to preempt toilet use and for the first glimpse of the Gangetic plain awakening to dawn. I had done this journey umpteen times but the gap of 21 years made me curious about the changes as we crossed obscure hamlets, familiar not for their names but appearance, decrepit stations with platforms stacked with parcels and human bodies asleep or the in between naps, oblivious to the rattle of speeding trains. The familiar food carts, the tea stalls displaying the mud cups or kullars and their owners parroting ‘chai chai’ ( tea-tea) were missing. Station tea tastes best in earthen cups with aroma of leaves mingling with the mud smell. Fathepur,beyond Kanpur, had been my favored station to drink the special brew as the train arrived here early morning. Now we have the railway canteen authorised tea flasks and ceramic cups leaving us no option but to drink insipid tea.

Around 5 a.m., the filtering sun exposed derrières along tracks and at one place a group of boys ( four to six years old) appeared to be playing a game sitting in a circle. Not a pleasant early morning expose. There are no major cities on this route, till we touch Kanpur or Cawnpore of British India history. The motley procession of spreading dry fields interspersed with green patches shaded by mango and neem trees and being a history buff visualized marauding mutineers and British soldiers galloping across the grayish brown terrain. The Mutiny of 1847* .

There was still an hour to reach Allahabad and as I gazed into the horizon I compared the passing scenery with another train journey in 2009 from Hong Kong to Beijing – Shanghai and back to Hong Kong. Then it was T 98 a superfast luxury train and the Soft Sleeper (four berths)compared with present situation had felt a luxury on wheels with clean crisp sheets, comforters, pillows, hangers, luggage compartment (at the top), hot water flask, step-on garbage-bin, mirrors, reading lights, air cons and new colored slippers for each occupant. The toilets were clean but towards end of journey, toilet hopping, it is a through train, appeared a better option.

View from trainThe train had swaggered past the scenic Pearl River delta, a continuous drizzle and a disappearing sun cast a chimerical effect to the picturesque antiquated ‘shark’s teeth’ mountains, leaving behind the pastoral countryside metamorphosing into a clinical landscape of barracks and factories, the occasional residential complexes with children frolicking in puddles and the elderly smoking, squatting or working in fields.

Next morning we got a glimpse of the grey skies, a continuous phenomenon of our 10 day journey, as we approached the humongous Beijing station mid afternoon. Few days in Beijing and another train ride to Shanghai and this time in the swanky D 301 Beijing/Shanghai express train, an immaculate all white, brand-new 200km/h sleeper train with staff in spiffy red uniforms and caps. Slightly intimidating and we slid in quietly so as not to disturb the other passengers in the upper bunks of the 4 bunk Soft-sleeper. It was a twelve-hour nigh journey and we missed out the country sights.

Shanghai station is a throwback of stations back home, except for its voluminous interiors, with escalators not working and no one to tell you where to go. The return journey to Hong Kong via T 99, in hard sleeper of 6 bunks, was a journey closer to real China train experience. The upper, middle and lower bunks cushioned bunk stacks and I had spent my waking hours in the corridor with folding table and chairs placed along the corridor, observing passengers trussed amongst bales, packets and luggage, playing Mahjong. We had planned the train journeys for a view of the countryside and to interact with the locals but it was nowhere near the ‘family’ atmosphere of Prayagraj, of camaraderie with friends, foes, acquaintances and strangers.

My bonding with trains is probably a residual baggage of my mother’s accounts of journeys aboard the British India Railways, the compulsory every six months winding up the hills to Simla and return to Delhi. Her stories, peppered with grandmother’s verbal tags on the helpers and coolies, were about her vigil of the steel trunks carrying the family ‘silver’ …clothes, ration, and household stuff.

The steam engines wove their magic in my psyche and as a six-year-old I would dream of traveling the Indian countryside in the chuk-chuk trains. My elder brother, probably in line with family tradition, joined the Railways via Indian Railways Institute of Mechanical & Electrical Engineering (IRIMEE) Jamalpur, an institute started by the British to rope in the best brains to manage the railways. His first posting was in Bhusawal, Maharashtra and my mother, me and younger brother spent a summer in his cottage in the railway colony. At night we would be woken up by frantic calls from the linesmen about some derailment or another and often my brother had to rush to the scene. He had been assigned a carriage, with bunks, washroom and kitchenette, that was attached to a goods or passenger train, depending where he was traveling. We joined him once for a regal ride from Bhusawal to Mumbai and Pune. The carriage, coupled at the end of a goods train for most part of the journey, was a dancing box and our mother spent the entire night worrying about being looted by robbers or being stranded in some vague station. It was an experience having the humongous railways at our service, the linesmen, station attendants waiting to welcome the Sahib and train travel took on another meaning.

New modes of transport did not lessen fascination of trains and they continued to be a metaphor connecting lives across the dusty plains whether in air-conditioned comfort or sweaty general compartments.

Here, I was two decades later re-living the romance of the philistine wheels not on an unknown journey but a journey to my past.

Photo taken from moving train with my iPhone on way to Allahabad.

Tuen Ng Festival -Hong Kong

The Tai O promenade is resonating with different rhythms: the pulsating drum beats, the swish of the oars as the dragon head decorated boats glide past, the fluttering buntings and flags dominated by color red, cheer groups, paddlers in their neon jerseys, jostling, waiting, standing around, the free drinks and snacks, the prize treat of roasted pig and the enthusiasm of  spectators

the prize
the prize

The dragon boat races of the traditional Tuen Ng Festival or Dragon Boat festival take place at different locations across Hong Kong. These are Sai Kung, Sha Tin, Tuen Mun (Castle Peak Bay), Cheung Chau, Tai Po, Aberdeen, Discovery Bay and Tai O on Lantau Island and Stanley which hosts the Stanley International Dragon Boat Championships on the same day, June 23rd, 2012.

We are at Tai O, on the north-western coastal edge of Lantau Island, having taken the West Rail from Hung Hom around 7.30 am and switching to Tung Chung line at Nam Cheong station. From Tung Chung the bus, no 11, brought us to Tai O through verdant green hills of Lantau west. We are early, around 8 30 a.m. and the onlookers, including volunteers, cheering groups and tourists, are slowly filling up the Promenade that stretches from the bus terminus along the lagoon.

The verve and competitiveness of the race overtakes the traditional festivities as the sleek 10 meter long dragon boats swish past propelled by the synchronized movements of 20-22 paddlers, sitting two abreast with steersman in the rear and a drummer in front. The carved and painted dragons heads and tails and the drum beats transfer extra energy to the rowers and one can glimpse the rippling muscles and concentrated visages, the want to win the trophies on display on the stage.

We watched for some time, the brochures as well as announcement was in Chinese, and walked over to the Tai O water village to observe further festivities of the Tuen Ng Festival. The festival, the dragon boat race is an accompaniment, is held every year on the 5th day of the 5th Lunar month in honor of the popular Chinese national hero, Qu Yuan, who had drowned in the Mi Lo River nearly 2,000 years ago. Qu Yuan was protesting against the corrupt rulers of his time and when the people heard that he had drowned they set out in boats to rescue him. Unable to find him they beat drums to scare away the fish and placed boiled rice folded in bamboo leaves to protect his body from becoming fish meal. The folded rice is believed to be a precursor of rice dumplings.

Tai O Dragon Boat festival includes the traditional ‘Deities’ Parade’ organized by the local fishermen’s organizations of West Lantau.  Before the races, members visit the four temples Yeung Hau, San Tsuen Tin Hau, Kwan Tai and Hung Shing to carry the deities to their associations’ hall for worship. On festival day members of Pa Teng row the dragon boats to Po Chue Tam behind Yeung Hau Temple, to follow ‘Picking the Greens’ ritual of placing fresh grass, from the hillside, in the dragon’s mouth. We did not see the rituals but I believe in olden days there was another a “Drinking Dragon” ceremony when few drops of rooster blood mixed with Chinese white wine and sprinkled on the dragon’s head, tail and body.

Once the grass ceremony is over the dragon boats follow the small boat carrying the deity statues towed by a dragon boat along the waterways. The residents of the  stilt houses and the village  burn joss sticks and gold silver paper offerings for departed souls as the boats sail past. Other traditions include eating zongzi*, wearing perfume pouches, tying five color silk threads and hanging mugwort leaves and calamus above doors, kitchens and bedrooms to rid of misfortunes and summer calamities.  The silk perfume pouch and the five-color silk thread tied around a child’s wrists, ankles and neck, considered protectors against evil, to be un-knotted on a particular day.

We mingled with tourists and residents hanging on to the railings along the waterfront or sitting in vantage points on the slightly shabby stilt houses or pang uks along the water, waiting for the deity carrying dragon boats.  There was an extended time gap between the arrival of boats and the restive crowd would patiently wait for the new manually operated drawbridge across the narrow creek to be levered up for boats to pass and then levelled for pedestrians to cross over to the market and village lanes. This bridge has replaced the 85-year-old rope drawn ‘ferry’ bridge for crossing the creek.

The smell of cooked and dried fish and other delicacies added to the sea front village ambience as we strolled along the lanes lined with stalls selling food items, tourist souvenirs including pearl strings, my friend bought one, and general items.  A resident advised us to take a cruise along the creeks and mouth of Pearl River delta to watch the dolphins. It sounded an excellent idea but it appeared that it was not the right day for this particular tourist activity or maybe others had same idea as there were no boats at the pier.

A few more hours watching the winning teams celebrate, the ‘Pig” was still in shape, strolling the promenade soaking in the sun and the festivities, it was time to move on. We took the bus for Po Lin monastery for a glimpse of the benign Buddha beaming down from amidst the dark clouds and for vegetarian food at the Po Lin Monastery.

*Zongzi is pyramid-shaped glutinous rice with different fillings wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves

The Dragon Wagged Its Tail…Hong Kong-Beijing-Shanghai ExpressTrain Journey…

Neville George Mullard or Bunt (chief protagonist) in Paul Theroux‘s novel KOWLOON TONG (about Hong Kong) considered his manager’s act of ‘to wake up and take the train to the People’s Republic of China and return before ten the same morning’ a foolish act and our friends too had similar misgivings about our decision to cover Hong KongBeijingShanghai by super fast air-conditioned trains. This was in 2009 and the Shanghai high-speed Maglev train was in introductory stage otherwise this too would have figured in our itinerary. We went ahead with our plans and despite the lost hours on the tracks the journey was a  learning experience guided by alphabet of train. T is special express with C and D the flying ones followed by Z the direct express trains. There is a choice of bunks linked to dollars and for us it was the 4 bunk soft sleeper, spacious and carpeted with personal TV, clean crisp sheets, comforters, pillows, hangers, luggage compartment (at the top), hot water flask, step-on garbage-bin, mirrors, reading lights and new different colored slippers. A luxury compared with train travel in my home country India. Beijing and Shanghai 006 If one has the money one can opt for Deluxe sleeper for two with toilet en suite. For the Four sleeper travelers there is choice between squatting and western toilets at the two ends of the coach and towards end of journey it is/was difficult to locate a clean one with toilet rolls. Anyways it is through train and, like us, one could go clean toilet-spotting. The Hung Hom station was crowded, too many people preferring track travel, but to credit of passengers we queued up for our berths except for the slight mishap of standing in different queue till corrected by an impassive ticket checker. T 98 streamed out of Hung Hom at 15:15 p.m. sharp. The layers of my travel misgivings were slowly peeling off and I settled down waiting for others passengers of our  coach. A single person walked in, uneffusive, and settled down on his upper berth. We were three by now and the fourth berth remained a silent witness to our sense of space. The train, meanwhile, continued on its journey passing  Sha Tin (Hong Kong’s New Territories) on way to Lo Wu (HK/China border), the familiar Pearl River Delta green belt and continued across to Guangzhou ignoring Shenzhen, the shopping city of millions dreams. A continuous drizzle added a chimerical effect to the picturesque  antiquated ‘shark’s teeth’ mountains of the Delta.  The magic moment soon passed with pastoral-landscape metamorphosing into warehouses and buildings with trees planted along tracks, probably serving as cover-ups for the habitats, and with no English signage to figure out where we were heading to, left it to conjecture. I tried asking a fellow-traveler, the minute she got off her cell phone, but her expressionless stare put an end to any friendly overtures. Language was a major issue, four years in Hong Kong and I still did not know Cantonese, and decided to buy English/Mandarin dictionary in Beijing. By now feeling hungry we walked to the restaurant car, a few carriages away and managed a table after a wait of few minutes. The menu offered limited choice and pictures were of no help either and ordered whatever appeared palatable, egg-plant with boiled rice. By 9 p.m. the staff was giving us crabby looks willing us to leave, probably wanting the place for them selves as  Beijing and Shanghai 005 Attendendts taking a break as smoking was, year 2009, permitted in restaurant cars and not in corridors. A few stare backs later we obliged and dallied in the corridors as it was still to early to call it a day. By now it was a ‘silent’ train with no soul around and nothing visible outside, it was still raining, there was no choice but to sleep it out. I did wake up once, probably when the train halted, but could make out only silhouettes and empty platform. T 98 stops at few stations including Guangzhou for passengers to disembark. Next day was bright and sunny and this somehow metamorphosed into ‘last sunrise’ for next 5 days. Beijing was grey and gloomy and Shanghai a shade better. The light brought along some life along the tracks and roads with pensioners sitting in front of houses and somewhere along the line children playing in the accumulated rain water. We were moving towards towns or cities with progressive tangible structures and well-organized greenery interspersed with sections of crowded housing and a perfected village ambiance of street corners and food stalls. Lunch in the restaurant car accompanied by black milk tea, tasted more of Carnation milk and not worth 30 Yuan (teapot), and the twenty-two hours were stretching into forty-eight. There was no interaction with fellow passengers, still in their cocoons visible through half closed doors. The toilets too were loosing out on cleanliness and we were looking forward to a refreshing water soak and cup of hot Indian or black milk tea. The train streamed into Beijing West platform or what, to me, appeared a mirror image of a ‘World War Two’ German station minus the swastikas and Nazi guards. This section of station was deserted with no milling crowds except for station staff. The health check and disembarkation forms had already been filed and handed over on the train itself and now we had to wait for our number to move out of the privileged area. The first push and shove and this was China of billion heads. The language problem reared its head again and after a few false directions located the ticketing section, for booking Beijing-Shanghai segment, and an English-speaking counter where locals outnumbered tourists. The transaction took time, explaining in slow diction, and by this time the line was getting restive at the extra minutes we were appropriating. A frumpy middle-aged woman came up and hollered, as it sounded to me, at the counter person for taking so long. I felt like hollering back but decided otherwise and waded through the flood of people to relative quietness. By now our collective patience was running out with the high-pitched babble and next step turned equally infuriating. After much asking around the taxi stand was on the lower level, from where we had just come up, and to add to the injustice the down escalator was not functioning. A ‘girl’ Samaritan guided us and before we could figure out our bearings were swamped by cab drivers wanting exorbitant rates.The fare was finally settled for 200 Yuan for the ride to hotel on Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang district. Fortunately we had the Chinese translation of hotel name, otherwise it would have been a taxi ride around Beijing. The hotel reception staff advised us to take metered taxis and ‘take receipts’. We had traveled from an ‘anthill’ to a mountain and the vastness of Beijing remained elusive under its grey skies presenting differing images: the new CCTV tower of ‘Big Shorts or Dakucha’ fame (its shape of two buildings joined together in mid-air) straddling the world; the muscle flexing Great Wall of China or the evanescent triviality of Forbidden City. Railway stations, hutongs and shopping complexes offered brief encounters with people from different corners of the vast country and in process a window into their world. We stayed in Beijing for four days and the city remained ‘out of reach’ as it was on day one. The food, the people, the more we tried to get to know, there was always an invisible barrier between us. I am not much a food person and neither were my two friends so we limited our cuisine explorations to the least, fries and burgers or vegetarian noodles and rice fare. The newer constructions, The Bird’s Nest, and architecture, are large and impassive or as my friend put it, soulless. The rickshaw ride in a hutong was closer to real China experience, of personal and culture, as were the wet markets and food stalls.

Beijing Station West

Shanghai: Beijing Station (south) is a mammoth structure and pushing our way through a labyrinth of escalators, waiting rooms, passages and walkways, finally located D 301 Beijing/Shanghai express train, an immaculate all white, brand new 200 km sleeper train with staff in spiffy red uniforms and slightly intimidating.

Shanghai train.

The other two passengers were already in the 4 bunk Soft sleeper, we had the lower bunks, so we quietly fixed our suitcases and had sandwiches and salads purchased from Seven Eleven store. The third friend had stayed back in Beijing so it was two of us now.  D 301 sleeper was a 1,500 km luxury for 730 Yuan and 12 hours of travel time from Beijing to Shanghai. We slept our way through the entire stretch as did the two gentlemen in the upper berths till we reached Shanghai early morning. The gray skies were following us and due to night travel missed out the scenery along the route.

Outside Shanghai station

Shanghai station was a let down. The train glided to a decrepit platform with non-working escalators, men wanting to carry our luggage to taxis reminding me of Indian stations, though slightly cleaner and presentable. The previous experience in Beijing had prepared us to haggle for taxi fare and we finally made it to our hotel to what appeared to a different corner of Shanghai. Shanghai was a whirlwind two day stop of sightseeing from temples to water towns, the No 1 commercial street Nanjing Road, the Bund along the Huangpu river, the Ming and Qing architectures, Yuyuan Garden, Xin Tian Di with its modern additions, the 1700 years ancient water town of Zhujiajiao, few miles from Shanghai, the Jade temple…. the city is a mishmash of ancient and modern, of Chinese and western. Communication was again a major handicap and on occasions we were rescued by youngsters, when we lost our way or were stumped by restaurant menus. At one roadside eatery, my friend conducted an impromptu pantomime of flapping chicken wings to order a chicken dish though ultimately were served beef. It was near closing time so they just dumped whatever was available with the expression ‘ lump it’. I am a non-beef eater and saved was again helped by a youngster, who in his broken English, confirmed our fears. We also said lump it and left without any ‘tippo’. Beijing and Shanghai 153Shanghai warrants another visit and this time an exhaustive one.

Waiting for Train..Shanghai Station

RETURN JOURNEY: 36 hours in this ‘Paris of the Orient’ and we ready for return journey to Hong Kong via T 99. Reported an hour earlier for immigration clearance and patiently waded in slow motion to waiting train through teeming mass of luggage toting crowd. This time it was Hard Sleeper with 6 bunks, the upper, middle and lower.   The berths were padded with clean sheets, comforters and pillows and items missing were water thermos, TV, sliding door and slippers. Our companions, girl studying in Switzerland and her friend probably working in Hong Kong, were too engrossed in each other. The first thing she did, next morning, was to diligently retouch her face, oblivious of our enthralled attention. The 5th and 6th passengers had not checked in ( top berths) so we did not feel squashed in our middle berths….small mercies.

Vendor selling food in train

The hard-sleeper carriage was crowded, and the narrow folding tables and chairs , placed in the corridor, were convenient sitting cum look-outs. There was this tourist busy pounding on his laptop probably blogging his experiences; a group playing cards and a mother tutoring her daughter. It was a tired and a quiet lot returning home or preserving energy for Hong Kong visit. Once again we risked dinner in the restaurant car, oily eggplants with white rice, leaving the Kentucky Fried burgers purchased at Shanghai station for breakfast. There is hot and cold water available in train, convenient to make cup noodles or tea/coffee, the three-in-one variety. The early morning sun streaming in through the windows was welcome after a five days absence, though the irritating piped music was grating. But it did not lessen the charm of the transitory countryside as the train passed through Guangzhou East to reach Hung Hom around one p.m. An end to a seven-day journey to be reconstructed at leisure of its plus points, a window to a country which till then centered around ‘Indian Chinese cuisine’ and ‘Made in China’ products.

The Pearl River Delta

. * Train Information: