Train Spotting… New Delhi to Pune….


Traveling on an Indian train is a series of mechanical exhalations, specifically for an Indian, whether in general second or cattle class or in First A/C. The surrounding levels of odors set the tone of the journey and with olfactory senses already in a limbo by the time the train streams out of the platform it is the sights and sounds that keep you engrossed.

An adventure prudie, guided by age, my the finger zeroed on Rajdhani Express for the rumbling journey in mid April 2015, across the plains of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan to Mumbai and from here a taxi ride along the Western Ghats to Pune. An ambivalent travel decision, to fly or track it, had resulted in Second a/c sleeper in the August Kranti Rajdhani, a clone of the original Rajdhani, clanking between Delhi’s Nizamuddin railway station and Central Station, Mumbai. A disappointment as I was hoping to touch down at Victoria Terminus or the present Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), with its  Victorian-Gothic style of architecture, constructed in 1888, a reminder of the British Raj pre-independence and more recently the scene of Dec. 26/11 terrorist attack.

The August Kranti train, named after the August Kranti Maidan, formerly the Gowalia Tank Maidan from where the Quit India Movement, launched in August 1942 and the train metamorphosed into more than a steel contraption. I was hoping for a revolutionary journey as far as hygiene is concerned. Late booking of tickets had resulted in upper berths, a hurdle because for senior travellers to climb up is nothing less than an acrobatic flaying of limbs. The consolation is that one can ask a younger traveler to exchange seats, but our luck was on back-burner. There were senior citizens on the other two berths and an elderly lady on the berth along the aisle leaving us with no choice but to butt up.

Discomfort forgotten, this was the first long distance train journey in India after a gap of nearly thirty years. The earlier train journeys had mostly been short distances, to Nainital via Kathgodam or to Mussorie and Shimla and later after marriage between Delhi and Allahabad. The August Kranti would be covering nearly 1,377 kilometers in 17 hours and 15 minutes and in train speak it was one of the reliable ‘on time’ trains. The diehard BJP supporter, in adjoining berth, attributed this to present government’s railway policies and we hoped for the best…clean and sit-able for 17 plus hours.

The coach was clean but it was the morning train toilet smell that I dreaded. In 1998 I had traveled  Hong Kong-Beijing-Shanghai-Hong Kong by express trains and sitting in the Indian train it was a reflex comparison with the lux coaches of the Beijing-Shanghai express, the spiffy uniforms of attendants, the bathrooms, the hot water availability. Though by end of Hong Kong-Beijing segment we were toilet searching for usable ones.

Personal fiefdom…Mathura Station

The train slided out of Nizamuddin Railway station around 4.50 pm, on time, and jogs, judders, lurches past New Delhi city swamps and algae ponds choked with plastic, industrial townships of Faridabad and Palwal towards Mathura- the land of Lord Krishna and his shenanigans. The Mathura platform played host to a cow or bull, could not make out from the moving train and I wonder how it came to the platform. So much for ‘Clean India’. The phone service provider had kept us updated about territorial boundaries as we crossed Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra…the last two in the night and early morning. Nothing appeared to have changed as the setting sun highlighted the stark villages, the mud houses in between newer brick constructions. As sunlight faded I turned inwards, to the compartment and its inmates.

We were sharing the lower berth, sitting with the lady, a silent request granted silently. The gentleman was not so obliging and stuck on to his lower berth. They were seasoned train travelers judging by the way they made themselves comfortable. The lady was enterprising, carrying her gastronomic condiments along…crushed cardamoms to add to the train tea and pickles and chutney as food asides. More interesting was her bagging the sachets of tea, milk, sugar, salt, tomato ketchup, served with tea and dinner, and by the time the train touched Borivili (Mumbai suburb), her departure point, she was richer by a few sachets. Her preferred mode of travel was train because of airline baggage restrictions giving credence to Santosh Desai’s words… ‘We never travel alone… we travel with our entire way of life and sometimes that has trouble fitting into an airline cabin’   (Mother Pious Lady..Making sense of Every Day India).’ Santosh Desai.

The gentleman, a shoe trader, was returning to Mumbai after attending his Guru’s camp in Mathura while the lady was on her way to attend the sermons of her guru in Mumbai. I found him taciturn and vocal by turns and the duo turned us into mute audience of their wisdom talk. Within time the conversation veered towards professions and economy and I watched how the lady inveigled an interview/assignment for her shoe designer granddaughter.

Finally, it was time to clamber up to our berths and In between toxic stares at the shoe trader, for not offering me the lower berth, I dozed into dreams of clean toilets, clean stations and gourmet cuisine. Waking up I realized that I should accept that ‘travel remains a journey into whatever we can’t explain or explain away’. (Pico Iyer).

The early morning scene of the peaky backwaters of Mumbai was a pleasant sight till we nudged closer to the city and the whistling local trains or steel cages transporting herds. Finally Bombay Central and a vortex of human bodies, stench and luggage, and we made a hasty exit for the taxi stand for commute to Dadar station. A 20-minute journey extends to more than 45 minutes, as the streets/lanes are jammed with humans, vehicles vying for tarmac space. The scene was reminiscent of Indian movies, of village bumpkins lost in the clamor and chaos of this tinsel town that is more squalor than cheesecake. One wonders why the state’s political parties squabble over beef bans and Marathi supremacy instead of channeling their energies towards making the city clean and livable.

(Did not click any train and station pictures)

Duronto Express….Return from Pune

Pune Station

The return train journey was no Continental soiree across rambling Alpine villages or prairies of North America, but a staid rumbling in another superfast train, the fully air-conditioned Duronto express, across the plains of Central India towards New Delhi, the capital city of India.

IMG_2830We were advised to book berths in the Duronto, as it is the fastest train on the Delhi – Pune sector covering 1520 kilometers in about 19 hours and 45 minutes. The luxury is the fairly comfortable padded velour first class berths and the freedom to stretch, burp or loll. The full day cooped up in a coupe was slightly discomforting and I segmented my hours; first few hours, till lunch time, gazing out at the flashing landscape that was no ‘Picasso blur of light and color’ but burnt sienna of the Deccan soil. The patches of green fields, the flat mountainous projections in the hazy distance add occasional people brightened up the dull scenery of the Western Ghats.

The train makes it first stop at Lonavla and later at Khandala and I start to hum ‘Aati kya tu Khandala’ from film ‘Ghulam’, sung by actor Aamir Khan on-screen. The station is least inviting and I leave Khandala and my humming behind and look forward to, two more stops,  ‘shining’ Gujarat. There is very little to differentiate between the villages and towns of the adjoining states, Xerox copies of each other, and it is the signboards that are giveaways of changing territorial boundaries. The people waiting on platforms mirror the city or state, the train had stopped at Surat and Vadodra, and we had a brief glimpse of colourful Gujarati turbans shielding business-dead pan faces. By this time the velour comfort takes hold and i stretch out,  breathing the rhythm of ‘back and forth’ as the train trundles on towards the desert plains of Rajasthan… is night by the time we cross the Gujarat border. The clacking over the rail joints and brief stops in middle of night fail to rouse me from my sleep.

Green cover

Train food is nothing to slurp over, a slight improvement, and the vegetarian and non-vegetarian Continental fare  accompanied by ice cream, were edible. Being First class the service was good and the chicken cutlets with steamed veggies a shade better than the lunch fare.

A.H.Wheeler...still continuing
A.H.Wheeler…still continuing

We had opted for train travel, probably trying to relive the romance of the railways and not compare it with airline travel. The one advantage of land travel is that there are no long queues, security pat downs, luggage restrictions and most important, the space or leg room. Stretch, exercise or play along the aisle, as the young mother and her two kids were doing, and no reclining seat-in-your-face. I finished a 250-page novel, curled up on my personal berth served by polite attendants, oblivious to the occasional flares of light from villages and stations as the train hurtled into shadowy blackness.

The 5.30 a.m. knock on the door and the smiling attendant placed our tea trays on the stool. What more could one ask for? It was time to unwind and prepare to disembark. A journey to relive the past had come to an end, a sanitized journey minus the shenanigans and subterfuges of past journeys when we had to chain the luggage for fear of pilfering during the night. The caution is still there, despite armed guards and security on board. Also missing is the constant stream of vendors, not allowed in First class compartments, climbing in and out at different stations. The stations too bore the ‘bare’ look as the proliferating books, fruit and snack stalls regulated leaving the platforms for travelers and their luggage.

On time and we were in Nizamuddin Station, New Delhi….the beginning of the end.

Cee’s Which Way Challenge

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
Lao Tzu

Snapshots of journies by car, on foot and train in Japan, Hong Kong, Macau and Coldspring, New York.



Shanghai –36 hours


August 2009 – *7.30 a.m. Shanghai railway station and the city waking up to early morning sounds and rituals. We arrived from Beijing on the second part of our journey and stifling a yawn and sidestepping persistent cab drivers, stepped out of the station.

Beijing and Shanghai 103An unimpressive surroundings and while waiting outside for friend, who had gone to check train tickets for Hong Kong, watched a man and woman playing with a kitten and wondered if it was being readied for the ‘wok’. Shaking of the gruesome thought I followed my friend to the waiting cab.  The ride to the hotel, somewhere near the Caohejing Development Zone, southwest Shanghai. seemed endless and the ‘concreteness’ blotched up any romantic images of silk embroidered parasols, of sleek silhouettes of ‘Shanghai Tang’ accessory line, or of a city portrayed by Lisa See in “Shanghai Girls.”  The last is a work of fiction set during the Japanese invasion and the Shanghai sisters moving to the USA.

The gossamer thin haze shrouding the city was another cause of discomfort reminding me of ‘Shanghai Shroud’ game I had read about in some magazine and no idea if it is really played. A player farts in a plastic bag and covers the head of another and punches him so that when the person tries to inhale he gets in all the smelly air. Sounds gross but Shanghai air was breathable.


Day 1: We had 36 hours in Shanghai and had to pack in as many sites as possible. A hurried breakfast and we boarded the 12 noon tourist bus from Shanghai Stadium for  Zhoujiajao, a water town 48 km from Shanghai on the banks of Dianshan Lake in Qingpu District. The tourist bus ticket was valid for entry into the ancient section of Zhoujiajao of narrow cobbled lanes, closely packed crumbling or preserved houses, cubicle shops along the canals displaying silk gift items, calligraphy art, a shoe-maker who shooed me away when I attempted to click his picture, I did manage on the sly, chinese tea shops and eating places. The legendary Fangsheng or the ‘setting free bridge’ over the Cao Gang River is one of 36 bridges connecting the town from all angles. Constructed in 1571 it is the only five arch bridge of its kind in Shanghai. Fishes were set free under this bridge, hence the name ‘setting free bridge’ and followed a tourist group into what appeared an antique ‘show’ house with an art house display of antiques.

View from the boat

We took a boat ride on the canals, nothing Venetian about it, cruising past shops, restaurants, tea shops and trying to peep through semi-open doors into houses …a man bathing turtles, boys fishing and an old woman diligently washing pots and pans in the canal water…. snippets of daily life. The red-cheeked smiling boat-person, seeing our bored expressions, regaled us with a lilting melody resonating with the surroundings.A few more turns and we felt we have seen it all and made our way to the waiting bus for return journey.

Beijing and Shanghai 139It was late evening by the time we reached Shanghai and took taxi, they are convenient, from the Stadium to the Bund or Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu (East Zhongshan 1st Road) on the northern side of the Huangpu River. This area is a pot-pourri of Gothic and Neo-Classical architecture, relics of a successful past when Shanghai was the bustling port of Asia and the ‘Pearl of Orient’. Majority buildings have been converted into hotels, malls and financial hubs. The jostling Sunday evening crowd aided by the ongoing refurbishing restricted movement and all we could see and hear were Chinese dialects and screeching traffic of people and vehicles. The subway from the Bund was off bounds, repair work in progress, and we could view the  Oriental Pearl Tower and modern glass, steel structures and twinkling lights across on Pudong side from in between people’s heads. Touts were persistent, followed us the minute we got out of the taxi, selling river cruises with varying price tags.

It was past dinner time and searched for McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried, most convenient and known food items, and managed a Chinese eatery on one of the parallel roads. It was nearing 9.30 p.m. and probably closing time, a plausible explanation for the grumpy attitude of the serving staff. The dishes did not look ‘chickeny’ and our fears were confirmed when a youngster, who had just entered, told us in broken English that one was pork and other beef. We had spent nearly 15 minutes drawing chickens and making flapping signs and still  could not get our message through. I do not eat beef and had to eat the veggies of the main dishes while my friend enjoyed the pork and beef. We  obliged them by leaving no tippo or tip.

 Shanghai of glitzy malls, skyscrapers, landscaped parks and antiquated sections of more than 20 million people was a challenge to our mind-set. To add to the non –positive was the ongoing constructions, preparation for the 2010 World Expo and we did the quickest and closest tourist oriented places.

Day 2 visited the Jade Buddha temple, the Yuyuan Garden in Anren Jie and the Historical and Cultural sections with its grey stone architecture and cart market. We had the names and directions written in local language by hotel reception staff to save on time and patience and to push it under the taxi driver’s nose for directions.

The original Jade Buddha is kept on first floor (no photography) with larger replica, in recumbent position of Sakyamuni symbolizing Buddha’s enlightenment or nirvana, downstairs for tourists. A guide informed us about the original statue and wanted us to savor some medicinal Chinese tea. We did go to the tea room but no one came forward to offer drinking samples. Maybe we did not come across as  potential customers.

Next was Yuyuan Gardens, a mini garden by Chinese standards, set in 20,000 square meters with rockeries, halls, pavilions, ponds with largest number of carp, and cloisters. The cool-mint-tea ambiance of the temple, constructed in 1577 by a government officer of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) for his parents, is ideal to spend a hot summer day.

Adjacent to the Garden is the Shanghai Old Street or Fangbin Road with decorated archways at both ends. The east section is the residential area with Ming and Qing style architecture with West showcasing antique and curio shops, restaurants and tea house  plus the ever-present McDonald’s, the new landmark of major Chinese cities.

The last stop:  the Historical and Cultural part of Shanghai referred to as Shanghai Xin Tian Di in what was the French Concession and the arty area of Shanghai. It is a pedestrian street with outdoor cafeterias, boutiques, bars, restaurants and carts set amidst old Shikumen and modern architecture. Redesigned by an American architect Benjamin Wood in 1997 the setting is a blend of 19th and 21st century lifestyle with sturdy and graceful stone archways or stone gates at entrance; shades of Faneuil Hall of Boston but minus the vibrancy.  Stylish boutiques, malls, art galleries and cafeterias, it was mid-afternoon and the chairs were still folded up, a treat for tourists.

6 p.m. time to return to hotel to board 9 p.m.train to Hong Kong. We had to arrive at Shanghai station an hour early because of immigration check and to maneuver our way through the crowded waiting area.The mammoth edifice, Shanghai Station, is no place to get lost in.

Beijing and Shanghai 178