Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Traveling in Indian Railways

I have been traveling in trains since childhood and enjoy it very much. I don't know about my very first journey but I recall being fascinated by trains when I was still in kindergarten. We were in Patiala (Punjab) and everyday my father used to take me to a phatak (level crossing) to watch the evening train. I don't know how long did that ritual last but on and off I would encounter these fascinating machines either when we travelled annually to my home town in Nagpur from Delhi or to some other place. I realized the importance of railways in our nation, in our lives quite early. It is not just the largest transporter of men & material but also unifies this diverse nation culturally and really makes it maintain its pluralism and social fabric. Since then I have been an admirer of Indian Railways and looked up to it. Fortunately, I found later that I am not alone and there are several people across India who love Indian Railways and are its FAN. These people have come together and formed a web-based informal group called Indian Railway Fan Club association (IRFCA) which discuss almost all aspects of railways through forums. I became part of it twelve years back and learnt a lot from the discussion and made life time friends. In this post we would talk about things which concern a regular passenger like train information, booking and traveling on it.

Indian Railways logo
I am unable to travel much by trains nowadays due to lack of time, lack of reservation, lack of convenient options. Still whenever I get a chance I prefer to take a train. Earlier this year when I was looking at options to go from Mumbai to Kolkata the choice was enormous and I couldn't make up my mind which one to take? Should I take the fastest one like Duronto, a prestigious superfast train like Geetanjali or a crawler train which makes plenty of halts and takes lot of time. Every type of journey has its charm. It was like a restaurant menu where one cannot decide which dish to take. I wondered how far Indian Railways has progressed that now there are different class of trains catering to various strata of populace. The the choice of accomodation has also increased especially AC classes.

Here are different classes of trains which are currently plying on Indian Railways:

Rajdhani - These are fully airconditioned trains trains between state capitals and nation's capital Delhi.  For example, New Delhi - Howrah, New Delhi - Mumbai, New Delhi - Trivandrum etc. They have sleeper accomodation like First AC (1A), Two-tier AC (2A) and Three-tier AC (3A) only. The meals and bedding is provided onboard and cost is included in ticket.They are quite prestigious, fast and cover long distance. They have highest priority in the section where they are running. List of Rajdhani trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/rajdhani_trn_list.html

Rajdhani Express

Shatabdi - These are fully air-conditioned intercity superfast trains with only seating arrangement. Generally one of the cities is a metro town. These trains start from one city and return back same day. These trains have Chair Car (CC) and Executive Chair Car (ECC) accomodation. For example,
New Delhi - Bhopal, Chennai - Mysore and Mumbai - Ahmedabad shatabdi. They have highest priority in the section where they are running. These trains are quite fast. Bhopal shatabdi is fastest in the country with 150 KMPH speed between Faridabad & Agra. List of shatabdi trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/shatabdi_trn_list.html
Shatabdi Express

Mail/Express/Superfast - These are the ubiquitous dark-light blue trains. They have all classes of accommodation like First AC (1A), Two-tier AC (2A), Three-tier AC (3A), Three-tier Sleeper (SL), Second Seating (2S) and General (GS). Generally 2S accommodation is available only in day time trains. 1A is available only on premium trains. Bulk of passengers travel on these kind of trains. They generally run upto maximum of 120 KMPH speed depending on section. List of Mail/Express/Superfast trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/mail_express_trn_list.html

Tip: A train is classified as superfast if its average end-to-end speed is above 55 KMPH for Broad Gauge trains. 

Jan Shatabdi - These are poor cousins of Shatabdi trains. The cities which have regular traffic but cannot generate enough high paying customers in air-conditioned class generally have such trains. Sometimes, regular Shatabdi trains are converted to Jan shatabdi due to poor patronage. List of Janshatabdi trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/jan_shatabdi.html

Garibrath - These trains were stated by Lalu Prasad Yadav then Railway minister to provide affordable Air-conditioned travel to middle class. They have only Three-tier AC (3A) accomodation whose fare are less than regular 3A in other trains. This is compensated by having an extra Side Middle berth. List of Garib Rath trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/garibrath_trn_list.html
Garib Rath

Duronto - These trains were started by Mamta Banerjee to provide non-stop end-to-end long distane travel. These are mostly fully airconditioned trains but some trains have sleeper accomodation as well. In these trains, one can book tickets only from first to last station. Apart from that they are exactly like Rajdhani trains. List of Duronto trains - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/duronto_trn_list.html
Duronto Express

Querying for trains

With these many choice of trains, it could get very tedious to check trains and availability in them. Fortunately, Indian railways have a passenger reservation website www.indianrail.gov.in. The website is quite basic and querying for trains & availability is quite simple. However, still some people overlook certain facts because of which they don't get to see some trains. Note that trains could have various frequency - daily, weekly, bi-weekly, tri-weekly or special trains etc. Similarly trains could have various class of accomodations - 1A, 2A, 3A, SL, CC, ECC, 2S etc. So, one should start by enumerating all the trains between source and destination irrespective of day of running and class. This can be done from this page - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/inet_Srcdest.html which is mentioned as To know trains between pair of stations (Without Date Specific) on www.indianrail.gov.in. Enter source and destination and select All Class as Class. Querying this gives one single view of all trains, their frequency and accomodation which is easy to choose from. From here one can query availability in a specific train & class for a particular date. The result shows availability for next 6 days of running as well.

Single view with all train & classes between source & destination
During peak season like summer vacations, festivals like Diwali, around New year, railways run some special trains to clear the rush. One can take advantage of such trains as very few people know about it. These trains are published in print media but lot of people miss that. Even though they appear among regular trains in passenger reservation websites, lot of people miss them out due to unfamiliarity with them. List of such special trains could be found here for (Summer 2012) - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/special_trn_list.html. It is best to check on the website time to time for such special trains.

Normal Booking

Booking in trains is biggest headache nowdays with no reservation available even in non-peak seasons. Trains with hundreds of berths get booked within minutes. So, it is important to prepare for booking the travel. Reservation can be done online or across the counter in a passenger reservation center. Online reservation is handled by IRCTC (a subsidiary of Indian Railways) through its website www.irctc.co.in which is one of the largest e-commerce websites in Asia based on transaction value per unit time.

IRCTC logo
Normal booking starts 90 days in advance for general quota. The bookings start at 8:00AM in the morning so one should be prepared for it by being in front of the computer before that or in the queue at reservation counter.

Tip 1: Sometimes booking from preceding station or booking to further station helps get you seats as quota is different for different source-destination pair. For example, booking from Pune to Nagpur on Maharashtra Express which comes from Kolhapur, there is a different quota from Pune to Nagpur than let's say Kolhapur/Satara/Ghorpuri stations which are before Pune station. They come under Kolhapur-Nagpur quota which is separate than Pune-Nagpur quota. By using the facility of specifying a different boarding station than the station from which reservation is done, one can get confirmed accommodation by paying a little extra for extra distance. I utilized it once to get a confirmed AC Two-tier reservation from Pune to Nagpur while Pune-Nagpur was waitlisted. Around Delhi area, for example if there is no availability for New Delhi - Mumbai on Golden Temple Mail, try booking from Ghaziabad to Mumbai. That would be a different quota than one from New Delhi.

Tip 2: With the advent of Duronto non-stop trains there is a possibility to avail these trains if your destination is on the route close to eventual destination of the train and it is a technical halt of the train. Every long distance train has some technical halts where crew changes. If your destination is one such then it could be a boon. For example, Mumbai - Howrah Duronto has technical halts at Bhusaval, Nagpur, Bilaspur, TataNagar. So, people who are destined to let's say Bilaspur or Tata Nagar can book the entire journey from Mumbai to Howrah but get down at these stations when trains stop there. In my recent journey from Mumbai to Howrah, there were several such passengers who got down at Tata Nagar and Kharagpur. You may just have to pay extra upto Howrah for this convenience. Railways does not publish a list of technical halts for a train but you can easily figure them out by experience, talking to train crew, passengers or characteristics that it is a major station, change of railway division and around 5-7 hours from previous technical halt.

Tip 3: You could avail connecting train journey where instead of going from A to B directly, you may go from A to C and then C to B. There might be some hidden gem of a train which could be available on one of these legs and other leg could be accomplished by some other means like train, bus or even air. Shatabdi trains or overnight trains from a smaller city are relatively lightly booked and fill up only towards the day of travel and could be easily availed. For example, there is an overnight Bhopal express which generally would not have so many people traveling from Bhopal so reservations could be available there. I once went to Pune from Delhi in this fashion. I took Golden temple mail from Delhi to Dadar (Mumbai) and comfortably got into Mumbai-Pune shatabdi at Dadar. Recently, I was contemplating going from Pune to Delhi via Indore/Bhopal as connectivity from Pune to Indore/Bhopal and Indore/Bhopal to Delhi is very good. Of course, this is not feasible with family & kids but single traveller could easily avail it and visit a new town in bargain :)

Tatkal booking

Booking Tatkal tickets could be sheer luck. On passenger reservation centers people stand in queue from midnight to be the first customer on the counter. Similarly there are thousands of people who try to book tickets online. Even if you are able to get through the site and able to make payment, still you may or may not get a confirmed seat. Tatkal reservation starts 1 day in advance for Tatkal quota excluding the day of start from originating station at 8:00 AM.

However, one can make an informed judgement whether to try to book tatkal tickets by looking up Tatkal quota in your preferred train.

Tip 1: To know the quota you could go to either of these sites and try to query availability of desired train for today or tomorrow's date by selecting 'quota' as 'Tatkal'. Since the site shows availability of next 6 days, the availability after first two days is the Tatkal quota. If it is huge number then you could try booking it through website. For example, I would take a chance booking a sleeper accommodation in Pune-Nagpur express but not in Pune-Delhi Jhelum express as the rush is far greater over there.

Tip 2: At the time of fetching trains on www.irctc.co.in, you could expedite it by directly entering the station codes instead of waiting for the site to populate the code. Technically when we enter first few characters of station name, there is an AJAX call made to server to fetch station names and codes. Due to enormous load on servers, the call may not even return. At least you can cross this hurdle by knowing the station code. You can query for station codes here: http://www.indianrail.gov.in/stn_Code.html
Codes for stations with 'Delhi' in name
Current Booking

The requests for reservation at the reservation counters or www.irctc.co.in are accepted up to 4 hours before the scheduled departure of the train, after which, the reservation could be done at the current counters at the starting station of the train up to one hour before the scheduled departure of the train and there after by the Ticket Collector/Conductor on the platform, if vacant berths/seats are available. Note that your cannot book current booking tickets online as yet. Shatabdi trains are good candidate for such a facility as they have lot of capacity but few premium travellers. You can query current booking availability at http://www.indianrail.gov.in/inet_curbkg_Enq.html by giving name of the station.

Rail Tourism

Couple of years back me & my wife were thinking of going for Vaishno Devi trip from Pune in peak summer season at the end of April. Expectedly there were no reservations available for normal booking from Delhi to Jammu and booking a Tatkal may not be possible as we would be journeying while the Tatkal booking window opens and we cannot plan a journey with uncertainty. We could manage Pune-Delhi tickets somehow but what to do about Delhi - Jammu leg? I was thinking of various option, should we take a bus tour package or go from Delhi to Jalandhar and then onwrads etc? While I was thinking about it, one of my friend pointed me to Rail tourism packages. They have a website www.railtourismindia.com. I immediately queried the site and bingo there was a package available from Delhi. In one shot I could book everything required for Vaishno devi trip. The package includes return Delhi-Jammu train tickets, transport from Jammu to Katra and back and hotel stay. The trip was quite comfortable and value for money. I wrote about this entire reservation juggling in my earlier post - Vaishno Devi trip from Pune. So, if you are on a fixed tour like pilgrimage check out whether there is a package available on rail tourism. It is far easier than booking individual tickets and managing stay and transport.

Rail tourism website
Retiring Rooms

There is another facility which Indian Railways extend to their passengers which is of retiring rooms. Retiring rooms could be a good way to stay if you are visiting a town for short duration. There are some rooms and dormitories available. There are even AC dormitories at certain stations. The rates are far cheaper than hotels and availability could be possible as it is meant for only bonafide railway passengers who have just come form travel or about to travel. More information about type & number of retiring rooms is available here. I have stayed in retiring rooms at Indore, Vijaywada, Jaipur, Raichur etc. and found them to be quite comfortable and value for money. The experience I had in Indore is recounted in my earlier post Meter Gauge travel in Central India.

Retiring Room at Indore

Running status of trains

Now days trains are tracked through GPS and it is possible to get their exact position and correlate to schedule to know whether they are running on time or not. It is useful if you are going to station to receive someone or catch the train yourself. There is a website www.trainenquiry.com where you can enquire current running status of the train.

PNR Status

There is a single number across India for railway enquiry '139'. You could call and enquire about status. You could also go to any railway site and it has a link to check PNR status. Simplest way is by sending SMS to 139 with text 'PNR ' and receiving an SMS in return containing the status.

General tips

1. If you are not able to get AC reservation, you could brave yourself going in sleeper class. For overnight journey it is not a bad option. An upper berth could be quite comfortable and one doesn't need toilet that much and spared from dust and crowd.

2. One can book tickets even if their plan is tentative as train tickets can always be cancelled. For sleeper class canceling ticket even one day in advance would have only Rs. 20/- as penalty and up to 70/- for AC classed which is very less compared to large fee imposed by airlines. More information on refund rules is here - http://www.indianrail.gov.in/refund_Rules.html.

3. As a pastime if there is nothing much interesting to do in train, one can calculate the speed of train. Generally there are kilometer markers along trackside which indicate distance travelled and using a stop watch in mobile phone, one can calculate speed.

4. One could figure position of your seat whether it is a lower/middle/upper berth based on seat number. Every class of accomodation has a fixed layout of seats which is common across railways. The layout is illustrated here for all classes: http://erail.in/rail/help/seats.htm.

More Info...

There are many other nitty-gritties about travel in Indian Railways like Break Journey, Circular journey, Waitlisting, Change in journey details which unfortunately are quite detailed and cannot be covered in a common post. If someone has a query they could ask me directly or search on the two wesbsites which are quoted in the post. Additionally, I would suggest to go over this page to learn more.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Dayara Bugyal Trek


In early May this year I received a mail from Indiahikes about a couple of treks being planned in late May and early June. With things being favorable in office and at home, I immediately started to research about the trek. One of those treks was to Dayara Bugyal near Uttarkashi. I looked at the blog written by earlier trekkers and looking at the photographs I was all for it. The trek was also suitable for me as it goes through forests and meadows giving good view of Himalayan peaks, it was not very difficult trek as it goes upto around 3000 mts which I thought I can tackle well and it was for 3-4 days which  could easily fit into a week of vacation. I called up Indiahikes and registered for it on their site. After that I worked out travel from Pune to Barsu (starting point of trek) and back. I packed usual stuff to be carried in a rucksack trying to keep it around 7-8 kg but it exceeded that limit. I called up Indiahikes which assured me that other people on the trek (guide & helper) would help in case I am unable to carry the stuff at certain times during the trek. Lastly it turned out that I happened to be the only trekker who will be on trek apart from trek leader (Arjun), guide/cook (Naveen) and porter (Bhaiji) with his horse (let's call him Chetak). I was not bothered by the fact that I am the only trekker for the trek and was determined to go. I was apprised about the fact that it was an exploratory trek so there won't be big group and there may not be fixed itinerary that fact I linked. Even if the trek had cancelled I would have at least gone somewhere in hills and wouldn't cancel my vacation. It turned out Indiahikes had similar plans even if they didn't get any confirmed participation. So, our spirits jammed together. This was supposed to be my first multi-day trek in Himalayas so was quite execited. Though I have been up there many times but always around towns, in vehicles and on day treks like typical tourists. I didn't think much about how will we stay in tent, how will we manage in night, food etc. which helped me enjoy myself and get surprised at times. I flew from Pune and stayed at my sister's place in Meerut.

29th May

I started from Meerut for Haridwar @ 11 PM so that I am able to reach there early morning and catch any bus to Uttarkashi which generally leave by morning. I knew that my night is going to be screwed but there was no other option. I got a bus at 11:40 PM near Meerut bus stand. The bus was going to Rishikesh. Luckily I got a seat and tried to doze off in between but the constant rattling of bus kept on waking me up. The bus also made itself prominent by going to each and every depot enroute and landing at famous Cheetal Grand restaurant. There I saw other buses including one from Delhi to Uttarkashi. I was tempted to switch bus but when I surveyed it, it didn't seem to have any empty seat and my bus was about to move. Finally reached Haridwar at 3:30 AM around 4 hours after starting from Meerut. 

At Haridwar it turned out hard to figure out whether there will be any bus to Uttarkashi. The enquiry office was closed but sundry tea-stall guys and other bus guys assured that there will be some. However, one cab guy finally gave correct information that all state transport buses are serving "Char-Dham" yatra because of which there may not be any bus from here. He asked me to better go to Natraj Chowk in Rishikesh where I could get some private transport. Heeding his advice I hopped onto the next bus going to Rishikesh. There were two elderly bengali gentleman whom I tried  to influence who were headed the same way but they were skeptical of me. Leaving them behind I was on my way to Rishikesh. The bus driver was a maniac and drove like crazy. After a couple of near misses and lots of swerves he calmed down and drove gently. The bus dropped me at bus stand in 45 minutes. The search for any state transport bus to Uttarkashi began again. Though there were minibuses parked but there were no boards on them for destination. The enquiry was closed and timetable also did not show any bus timings from Rishikesh to Uttarkashi. I asked one of the stall which was open at this time who pointed me to adjacent private bus stand where couple of buses were standing. On enquiring there it turned out one bus just left for Uttarkashi and I was late and there won't be any bus till 11 AM. I was aghast, how early than 5AM one should come to not be late I wondered? Good that I came early otherwise I was planning to come around 8-9 AM in the morning. The lack of buses was due to "yatra" traffic which took away buses. So, if you are an individual traveller  not part of organized travel then be careful and keep lot of buffer for travel on the "yatra" route. Again someone suggested to go to Natraj chowk and catch some private jeep. I walked a kilometer to Natraj chowk where handful of taxis where standing. One of them was going to Uttarkashi and seats were available but only in the back. Thankfully, luggage all went up on the carrier which did not cramp the seating area. There I met the same bengali fellows who were at Haridwar and had to fend their way till here. 

We finally started at 5:45 AM and straight hit the road to Gangotri. The twists and turns were churning my stomach and sleep was dozing me off. I got woken up couple of times due to being thrown away by swerves. The journey up was not very exciting. There was no river following our route as Bhagirathi (or Ganga) comes into picture only near Tehri. There was lot of haze due to which mountains and landscape was not looking great. The road was broken at many places due to landslide and due to dryness, there was lot of dust blowing from passing vehicles. The mountain face also looked scarred at many places due to debris from landslide and construction spreading over it. The weather was unnaturally very hot and devoid of moisture because of which loose earth of rubble was flying & getting all over you. Finally the river was seen with muddy color but very less flow. The reduced flow turned out was due to ice having started to melt only now and river would be in full flow in June. 

We were welcomed at Uttarkashi by a traffic jam which was due to a petrol pump queue. The town was non descreipt and looked just like any other small town in plains. There was no place for me to sit and wait so just sat outside the hotel where Naveen asked me to come. After dumping my rucksack with him, I went out for lunch and found one nice place for Rajma-Chawal. I was having it after a long time. Finally, my trek leader Arjun arrived at 2:30PM. We introduced each other and got talking. He was quite nice and friendly. I told him some of my exploits in travel and he was impressed with them. Naveen was busy collecting all the stuff required for trek. Once done we left for Barsu in a hired taxi. The stuff contained tents, sleeping bags, kerosene stove, diesel as fuel and food supplies. Barsu is 42 km from Uttarkashi and took 1.5 hours to reach there. In the evening we took a round of village. It is on hill slope with around 100 houses facing east. There are couple of temples and a large pond. The main deity being "Naag" or snake which are often seen around here. There were stepped fields where  wheat, potato, vegetables and even opium was being grown. This was a nice walk with some climb which I guess the leader was using to gauge my fitness. We stayed overnight at GMVN there with nice staff. Naveen treated us with nice dinner. There is another private resort called Dayara resort which is worth staying.

Barsu village against wheat fields
Barsu village and polyhouse from GMVN

Dayara Resort against wheat field in the morning

30th May

We started from GMVN at 7:30AM a little late. My rucksack was being carried on Chetak as it would bog me down and instead I was carrying a small backpack and camera. The climb started as soon as we left village. Arjun went back to fetch his GPS while I carried on. However, slowly everyone in our team overtook me. After some climb the village below looked beautiful. The trail was decently covered by trees and shrubs. The trees were mostly Oak and few Maple trees in between which Arjun showed me. There were some thorny shrubs as well and dreaded bicchho ghas which causes itching which I was instructed to stay away from. The sun was intense though it was not hot. I was sweating due to exertion but a gust of wind would cause a shiver through the body due to sweat. I was wearing a t-shirt and cotton lower which are good enough during the day. Due to sweating and exhaustion I was drinking water frequently and emptied two bottles by the time I reached Barnala. It is important to keep oneself hydrated otherwise it could lead to exhaustion to people not used to such treks. 

Trek looking up
Barnala is a small bugyal with a pond, Gujar+ kothi (hut) which is a good breaking point on the way to Dayara. This was my first glimpse with any bugyal, meadow carpeted with grass, flowers and small plants. It was lush green and thriving in the sunlight. The flowers were mainly of yellow color though they were interspersed with white and blue ones. I tried looking at the field in a slanted angle to get them in one streak. The field looked like a mustard field of plains during winter. Here I caught up with the gang and replenished water. 
Barnala Bugyal

Views from Barnala bugyal

Barnala Taal

Chetak grazing away loaded

After Barnala, I started feeling hungry and tired. Then I realized I was not carrying any dry fruits or munching and chocolates were in rucksack on Chetak. Then I really felt the importance of the packing instructions when they ask you to pack dry-fruits, chocolates and other energy boosters. At one point while taking rest I simply fell asleep. After some 30 mins Arjun came looking for me and woke me up. That was really embarrassing for me to just knock off. The trek leader gave me some dry fruits to munch from the backpack which gave me some relief. The last leg till Dayara was herculean for me and I prayed it ended soon. Finally when we reached, we were greeted by Naveen with tea and biscuits. He was ready with lunch quickly which I liked to put some energy in me. 

Entering Dayara bugyal

After lunch I went for a nap on the grass itself out in the sun. Soon some animals joined us, a group of langoors, cows and couple of dogs. Langoors were going up and down the trees and seemed curious about us. The dogs here were so different than dogs in plains. They had long and dense hair and menacing eyes but did not seem aggressive at all. They just sniffed, rubbed themselves against us and then sat quietly on the ground. I hardly heard them bark in the entire trip. I was exhausted due to trek so decided to not go for excursion with Arjun and Naveen to Bakaria top and other corners of the bugyal. There realized another important point that one should be enough physically fit that one should not just be able to reach the camp site but also roam around it to catch the views. Remember the purpose of trek is to explore, to roam around, soak in the surroundings and not just go from point A to B. 

Campsite at Dayara

Langoors at campsite

In the evening we were joined by a couple of trekkers from US who were going to Dodital. They also pitched their tent nearby and we got talking. They were pleased by hospitality from Naveen's kitchen. In the evening one of them lighted a camp fire which we all enjoyed with chit-chat on topics related to India. The dinner was good though I lost some appetite but enjoyed Kheer and Horlicks before bed. This was my first night in tent and I was looking forward to it. Arjun showed me how to use the sleeping bag and all. Though it was warm and comfortable but unable to move my legs was a problem. I did not have a sound sleep and kept waking up due to cramps in body and unable to move feet and missing pillow. On the other hand, Arjun was slept normally.

31st May

I woke up some time before sunrise when birds started chirping and went out for nature's call. It was quite chilly but not unbearable. After some time sun finally rose. Just before it peeked out from behind the peaks, the sky was oranage with dazzle from the sun. In few seconds it turned from a small glowing speck to a ball of fire and we were mesmerised.

Just before sunrise, Dayara bugyal

Peaks glowing in morning sun

Sunrise at Dayara bugyal

The sunlight in cold weather cheered me up and I went about readying for further trek. I was given a go ahead to climb adjacent hill from where we would walk on the ridge. I slowly climbed the hill which was full of grass and flowers and many flies and insects though they were not a botheration. There were some amused cows looking at me. I was gorging on the views of meadows as well as surrounding mountains. Arjun joined me soon and we then walked over a ridge covered by trees and dwarf Rhodendrons to come to a Gujar hut. The head of family greeted us and invited us to have milk. He also asked for some medicine for fever and some ointment for infection in his feet. Arjun gave crocin tablets to his wife and gave some ointment to him. We instructed him to wash his wound properly and keep it bandaged. The hot milk tasted good and after finishing it we took their leave. We came to a point called Dev kund but the pond over there was dried up. Here the trail for Dodital forked away.

Dayara bugyal in morning sun

Trek path on day 2

Dev kund (it is the one on left, dried up)
We climbed another ridge and then walked on level trail up to a point where we decided to wait for our support gang. We just lay there on the top of the ridge. I turned on my phone and played some songs including Dil Dhoondhta hai from hindi movie Mausam which was apt for this setting. Surprisingly mobile coverage was available here and sent a message home about my well being. Down below in valley there was another set of huts. The valley looked like slope in a golf course. The far away peaks were visible through haze but not very clear. After walking this ridge there was a final climb which was quite steep before we had to enter into a valley under Surya top called Syari. We climbed upto 12000 ft before descending to 11400 ft at the camp site in valley. 

Looking back at the ridge

Looking back from the ridge

Gujar kothi in the valley below
Again we were greeted with hot tea from Naveen who had already reached and pitched tents. After lunch of aloo paranthas it was time again for an afternoon siesta. Around us there was lot of activity. There were a group of mules who were not so happy with invasion of Chetak and confronted him to which he gave a defitting reply by kicking the mule. There were hundreds of sheep belonging to a shepherd which were grazing on slopes and at one instance decided to have a stampede down the valley. Then friendly dogs also appeared sensing some food. All this activity was going on while I dozed in the sun.
Syari valley

In Syari, looking up to Surya top

Sheep at Syari
Later in the afternoon we decided to have a stroll on adjacent hill and came down after watching some more vistas. While having evening tea we heard some lightning at a distance and dark clouds threatening rain. Arjun quickly realized we are in open and could be prime target for lightning so he told all of us to get into the forest in such situations. Naveen and Bhaiji being locals brushed away the possibility. We immediately collected our raincoat and torch and made way to the group of trees. Its better be safe in such climes that exude bravado and completely listen to your trek leader. We were approaching night and dark clouds threatening rain got me into a small panic. What if lightening happened in dead night, how would we go to forest in night and what if we got wet in such cold? Arjun kept me busy in talk I think so that I don't think about all these things. Thankfully the clouds receded and lightning stopped and we had pleasant evening after that. Even in night we didn't hear any trouble. Just like last night sleep was distrubed due to cramped space, hard bed etc. I could hear our horse eating away the grass even in night while I waited for the light to appear in the morning.

Vistas at Syari

Gujar is a tribe of people who live in northern plains in the state of Uttarakand, UP, Haryana and rear cattle. Their main trade is selling milk from their cattle. They mostly live in plains at the foothills but in summers climb the mountains along with their cattle when heat gets unbearable. They carry them on foot so could be called as partially nomadic tribe. 

1st June

Again I woke up well before sunrise and went out of the tent and sat on a rock for some time waiting for sun to rise. Naveen presented hot bed tea which was exemplary in this cold morning. Arjun too woke up and came out. He climbed the hill on the west to get a good view of the sun. He cajoled me to come up which I did and what a view I got. The sun was peeking out hugging side of a peak. There was a streak of cloud on the peak going away from it glowing in the sun. The railfan in me immediately conjured up image of steam engine belching grey smoke through chimney. We sat there in silence looking at the spectacle.
Sunrise at Syari

We started after having breakfast of halwa and bread butter. Today we had to climb down upto "Pichkiyan" and camp there. Barsu from there is another couple of hours climb down. We decided to take a call whether to stay at Pichkiyan or proceed to Barsu on reaching the campsite. I was neutral but later got in favor of staying back as it would be warmer at lesser height and one more opportunity to spend night in the tent and watch sunrise. We started early and took the trail which winds through the forest and comes to a junction where several trails meet. Our support gang were going to take another trail suitable for horses.

Our trail was up and down over stones, tree trunks and crossing a couple of streams. We even witnessed last patch of ice around the streams. Arjun showed me how the place must be buried under snow as evident from flattened branches of shrubs. The forest was mainly comprised of Oak trees but there were others including Bhoj tree from where bhoj patra comes from. We were constantly descending and my knees started showing signs of wavering on trying to descend. As treking pole I picked up one tree branch and broke it in couple of strokes to make it suitable to which Arjun complimented that I have become a pro now.
Views from the trek - Day 3

Oak forest - Day 3

Gujar kothi at the junction

Views from Gujar kothi
At the junction there was a Gujar hut with family actively living there. These huts are very basic ones constructed mainly of tree branches and covered with thatch or plastic sheet. The walls are not sealed and there is space between branches is open which may not be effective during winds. The families typically have sheep, cows and even buffaloes all brought from plains. Since we had to meet our companions here, we waited for them sitting on grass, soaking in the sun. There was lot of activity at this hut with people bringing in goods and exchanging and taking it forward. The sheep of the house came out to graze along with cows. After some time a little girl comes out and shoved them back. Soon our companions arrive and we set out for more descent.

We reached Pichkiyan around 12 noon. The campsite was not that great. Ground was not level, grass was not inviting and no great views. Also the water body was occupied by buffaloes and dung everywhere. We decided to push forward and go down all the way to Barsu. My knees has started hurting but comfort at the end of trek was inviting and I decided to carry along. In between we met another Gujar family who were asking for medicines for their ailing head of family. We wondered how these people especially elderly live here? These are not typical house with amenities or even neighbours to talk to. How do they pass their time? We met another set of women who were collectign firewood who had come up from Barsu. They asked for water and Arjun obliged. He was speaking to them and asking them things. On me being silent, one of the women asked me whether I don't understand their language? I said I understand on which she said that since I did not speak to them so she doubted why I was not speaking to them. I did not expect to blush at this place. These womenfolk were quite sturdy and were carrying a heavy load of firewood with them.

We encountered a bigger stream on the way with was like a stepped waterfall. We sat listening to the falling water and freshened ourselves. To cross the stream there was a tree trunk placed cross at lower level and a 'bridge' made of 3-4 slender trunks at higher level. The one at higher level was a little risky but on Arjun's encouragement I managed to cross it with some balancing. After some time we could see Barsu close by. While walking through the village there were curious looks and I walked with the air of a conqueror. Finally we reached GMVN welcomed by the staff there. Rest of the day was spent resting and chatting with staff.

Stream on the way

Barsu village from a distance

2nd June

Today we had to travel all the way back to Delhi, so we started early and decided to take local transport upto Uttarkashi. The first taxi took us to Bhatwari, there we transferred to a second one and went upto Uttarkashi. We were running short of cash as we had to pay Naveen, so we went to the ATM there. But all the ATMs were out of cash. Only around 10 AM was the cash filled again and we were able to withdraw cash.

Here I parted with Arjun who wanted to spend more time with Naveen on further association. I went to the taxi stand a little away from main area where there was a taxi ready to go to Dehradun. Instead of Rishikesh I thought to take this one and go to Dehradun which is a bigger town, easier to get transport to Delhi and it was immediately leaving. However, on SMS Arjun warned me about it being a longer route but we were already on our way. The route goes through Barkot - Mussorie a different route than one for Rishikesh. The route was similar to one we came from Rishikesh, not so good roads, dust, brown hills. Around Mussorie the vegetation changes and the forest is dominated by pine trees. However, things were not pleasant. The brown hills had parched vegetation, some forest fire brewing, lot of traffic around Mussorie and weather being warm.

Around Mussorie there seemed a cavalcade of cars mostly from Delhi. Today being saturday the Mussorie town seemed to be run over by tourists from nearby cities. Dehradun was quite warm on reaching there but some of the roads were tree lined. I got down at survey chowk and took No. 5 Vikram tempo to bus stand which is 10-12 km away. There I caught an ordinary bus going to Delhi.

Just out of Dehradun we were passing through Rajaji National park which was completely parched. There was a river course but river was all dried up, trees denuded of leaves. All this in scorching sun presented a gloomy sight. Just nearby we have Ganges and the river through park is all dry. On top of it we got stuck in jam around a narrow tunnel and memories were back to days I used to battle heat in DTC buses in Delhi. After that every town we ecountered dust, jam, cacophony be it Roorkee, Chhutmalpur, Purkaji, Muzaffarnagar. After excruciating and worst part of this vacation, I reach Delhi outer at 11 PM and went to comfort of my friends place.


Overall, this was a statisfying trip but a little worrying at state of affairs. How difficult it is to travel ordinary in the places and heat which is catching up the himalayas as well. The haze due to fire is capable of ruining entire experience. I just wish authorities are working towards retaining the charm of hills.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I happened to visit Kolkata erstwhile Calcutta last month. I was there to attend a convention of our Indian railways interest group. The moment venue was announced as Kolkata, I immediately registered for the event. Kolkata is the most prominent major cities in India which had remained elusive to me. I had never been to Kolkata before or on this eastern part of India. I was quite excited for this trip and waited patiently for the day to arrive. Kolkata forms a significant part of Indian conscience having been bred through several literary, culinary, historical anecdotes. It being a city bigger and grander than Mumbai till some time back, capital of British India, home state to Rabindra Nath Tagore, place in Indian freedom struggle, contribution to Indian film industry and most importantly due to its colorful people whom I have met time and again and have become good friends. Here’s the famous symbol of Kolkata or the hyphen (aka bridge) connecting Kolkata and Howrah, the mighty Howrah Bridge.

Howrah Bridge - defining symbol of Kolkata

Though I had initially planned to spend 3-4 days but had to curtail it to just 2-3 days due to some personal work. With convention happening over 1.5 days, practically I had only one day to explore the city. It took more time to reach Kolkata than I had time to go around. Due to lack of credible trains from Pune, I decided to take train from Mumbai which was in the evening. The train was Duronto express which is a non-stop (no commercial stoppages) from Mumbai to Howrah and would reach next day in the evening. The train ride was comfortable and enjoyable which also formed important part of the trip. Most of the time I was glued to the window looking out as I was traveling on this line for the first time. I got down at most places where the train made unscheduled halts. Finally I passed through all the places which I used to draw on geography maps in school – Rourkela, Bhilai, Tata Nagar etc. famous for their Coal, Iron and Steel industries. I was passing through Odisha erstwhile Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal for the first time. That day most of the route was foggy which was surprising but I think it was due to lot of air pollution due to several industries and thermal power stations.

The train reached around 45 minutes late by 8:30 PM which was a bit late for foraying into an unknown city. However, my companion obliged and insisted on dropping me to my guest house before proceeding to his relatives place. For people who are not familiar, Howrah and Kolkata are two separate municipalities though Howrah station is the main terminus for Kolkata city. The station is huge and for certain platforms one can bring their vehicle all the way adjacent to the platforms. Such luxury is not there in cities like Delhi/Mumbai. We were beneficiary as the car to pick us up was right next to platform. My guest house “Marble Palace” was located in “BeckBagan Row” close to Lal Masjid. The street was abuzz with activities – eateries, shops, traffic, pedestrians, people washing utensils, shop floor and themselves from the open water faucets. My companion told me about these open faucets where water keeps on flowing without stop for general public. Kolkata seem to rare water surplus city. It was a little unsettling initially to be located in such a place but on my companion assuring me of values of this city to be polite, helpful and cultured I was fine. My guest house was an old bungalow now converted into a guest house. The rooms were of Royal size – high ceiling, huge windows, old-style spring and coir sofas, really long door bolt for tall doors and huge bathroom which was basic but thankfully clean. I was alone today but other delegates and my friends from Hyderabad were expected next day. For dinner I strolled out on the street and after failing to find a decent restaurant settled for a hole-in-wall eatery selling chicken, mutton delicacies, parotta and roll. I decided to give a try and had parotta and mutton tikya which I felt took its name form detergent tikya which we use to wash clothes. The meal was delicious and it set me back by princely Rs 27. I reminded myself about cheaper cost of living in Kolkata. I am told you can still get a decent meal for Rs 10 in the city.

Next morning I woke and was out by 8AM which was a bit late considering sunrise happens early in eastern parts. There were roadside tea stalls every few meters and first thing caught my eye was tea being sold in earthen cups called “kulhars“. They were ubiquitous especially on train stations till past 10-15 years but have disappeared since but are still available in Kolkata. I relish having tea from these cups so had tea number of times in these cups during my trip. For breakfast went to a sweet shop and had veg cutlet and “singhara” aka samosa. I had chalked out a plan before starting for this trip to go around Maidan area witnessing all colonial buildings, Indian Museum, Shahid Minar, Fort William, Eden Garden etc. I referred to this http://wikitravel.org/en/Kolkata where a rough itinerary is chalked out. I straight went to Victoria Memorial but came to know that interiors and museum is open only from 9:30 AM onwards. There was still almost an hour to go. Fortunately, the garden around it was open. I decided to skip the museum and take a stroll around the building capturing it in wintery sunlight, filtering through the light fog. There were not many people at this hour and a cool breeze was blowing. My spirits soared and captured the building from various angles. The garden was very well-maintained with lots of exotic flowers and clean and clear water bodies. Somewhere I read that building was built to compete with Taj Mahal and indeed it does carve a place for itself.

Victoria Memorial and garden around it

Victoria Memorial in full grandeur

Queen Victoria sitting on throne in front of Victoria Memorial

I exited from the other side gate and after walking a bit came to Maidan which means “ground” in english. I decided to walk and cut a diagonal through it. The major occupants that day were cattle – goat and cows and there were several herds were there bathing in sun.


Cattle grazing and sunbathing in Maidan

Victoria Memorial from Maidan

After crossing Maidan, I walked across watching names of several sporting clubs dotting the area. After that I came onto Chowringhee Road and could spot the Shahid Minar from distance. It is very close to Esplanade, seemingly heart of Kolkata, bus and tram terminal station and has a Metro station as well.

Shahid Minar

Eye catching building and hustle-bustle at Esplanade

I was little ahead of Indian Museum on the road so decided to walk unto the museum. By this time the footpaths along the road were starting to get occupied by hawkers selling all sorts of wares. I came to Indian Museum building which had just opened its counters. I did not have any expectations form the museum and thought I would just skim through it. However, it turned out to be a real treat. It has geological, archaeological, animal, avian, marine specimen over several galleries. The galleries where huge with several things at display. The display units were either tall wooden almirahs or wooden boxes placed on the floor. Rather than specimen I was more amused by rarity of such display furniture. Somehow the thought came to me that the museum itself should be kept in a museum :) Its a mecca for people interested in above disciplines and would take weeks to go through the exhibits. It is at par or richer than National museum at Delhi.

Exhibits inside Indian Museum

Magnificent Indian Museum building

After coming out from Museum I walked further on Chowringee Road and took a road left to go towards banks of Hooghly. While walking I walked past some old buildings and when I peeked inside had dimly lit staircases and offices, decor and everything from a past generation. In other cities, such buildings are long demolished and new ones have come up. The streets and roads were all busy otherwise with activity. In between there was a street vendor selling meals was quite busy. I thought of giving a try there. I ordered mutter paneer korma and mix vegetable and two tandoori “rotis“. The meal was nice and it costed me princely Rs 24. I walked further without asking but keeping idea of direction however it seemed I was just circling that area. While doing this passed through more sights of buildings, trams and people.

General street scene

Heritage buildings reflecting in a pond

Finally, I asked direction of BBD Bagh and went in that direction. I knew that there is a ferry service from here to Howrah station. I wasn’t sure whether I want to take the ferry now or later as I wanted to walk on the Strand road adjacent to Hooghly so spent some time at adjacent Millennium park to take rest and brood. Just then my companion called and told about their ferry experience earlier this morning and how they missed Howrah Rail Museum which opens only at 1PM. I looked at my watch and time was just about 1PM. I made up mind to take the ferry and visit Howrah Rail Museum. This would give me a chance to ride on the river, give some rest to my legs and take pictures of ghats and Howrah Bridge. The ferry is quite popular as evident from the sizable crowd using it. The fare was Rs 4. The ride gives sweeping views of Howrah Bridge. I wasn’t expecting to be awed by this old steel bridge now that many modern, longer bridges have come up but it towers above any other structure and was quite awed by it. I tried to recall images of this bridge which I have seen in movies and recalled the scene from “Do Bigha Zameen” where Balraj Sahni and his son are awed by it.

Ferry in Hooghly with Howrah Bridge in background

Rush in ferry as well as on the Howrah Bridge

Howrah Station from Hooghly

Howrah Station jetty

From Howrah station jetty I walked to the rail museum which a little further from the station. It was well maintained but there was no visitor at that time. There were handful of exhibits much less than National Rail Museum which used to frequent in Delhi. I came out quickly and went back to ferry jetty and this time bought ticket to Pincep ghat aka Babughat which is a bit upstream in Hooghly. I got down there close to Eden gardens. There was no crowd around the stadium not even usual hum-drum of city. After that I walked back to Esplanade.

Exhibits at Howrah Rail Museum

In the evening local volunteers were supposed to take people out on Metro and tram ride for people new to the city. It was decided to meet in front of Metro cinema at Esplanade by 4 PM. We decided to take Metro to Dum Dum and back. We took the contact-less tokens and went to the concourse waiting for the train. The train arrived soon enough. We boarded and it was comfortably crowded. This particular train was not AC though there are other AC trains. Due to window being open, there was lot of rattle of train and difficult to keep a conversation. We got down at Dum Dum and took train back to come to Esplanade. Entire metro experience was comfortable and efficient almost at par with Delhi Metro. Though currently there is only one single line from Dum Dum to Kavi Subhash, there are many spurs which are planned and under construction. At Esplanade, some of our group members wanted to buy local delicacies so we got into a K.C. Das outlet. We bought Sandesh and Rosogullas and ateRajbhog. I had not seen a rosogulla so big in life though it was light to eat and I could finish all of it. After that it was decided for everyone to return to their guesthouse using tram ride. Apart from myself in Beck Bagan, rest were around Park street which are close by. We took # 22 to Park circus. The fare was mere Rs. 3.50. The streets were choc-o-bloc and it took a long time to reach Park circus though I was not complaining. After that I walked to my guest house where by that time friends from Hyderabad had arrived. After some chit-chat having met after long time we decided to go for dinner and have some beer. Our caretaker suggested some restaurants and we walked in that direction. However, we couldn’t find a single restaurant with bar. We went to other direction and asked certain folks who kept on assuring us that we will find some restaurant just a block or two down. We kept on walking but didn’t encounter one. Never in any other city did I had to walk so much for a beer. May be we were not located at right place. Anyways, we finally found one called SoHo which seemed slightly upmarket but found that its prices were stratospheric even beyond for cities like Hyderabad/Pune. None of us were ready to spend so much in a city known for cheap cost of food. I was reminded of delicious Rs. 27/- meal I had. I suggested my folks to go there and everyone agreed. We attacked that shop and occupied the only two tables available there. After that we ordered things one after the other. After eating heartily the total bill was less than a single veg starter in SoHo.

Next day we had convention for whole day at Rotary Sadan very close to Rabindra Sadan. Entire breakfast, lunch and dinner was provided at the venue. The meal menu was carefully chosen to give a flavor of Bengali cuisine.Lucchi, Chicken Korma, Baigan bhaja and Nanglur rosogulla. Dinner was equally enticing with Fish fry, Alooposto etc. We had a break for couple of hours in which I went in metro to the other direction till Kavi Subhash. Apparently most of the stations on metro are named on famous Bengali personalities from art, movies and literature. That is why I missed famous names like Tollygunge and Bhawanipur. After “Mahanayak Uttam Kumar” station, train runs on elevated section and I could witness some views of the city. Today was SaraswatiPuja day which is a big auspicious day in Bengal. Most of the men & women were dressed colorfully dressed in traditional attires which was a pleasing sight.

Next day we had convention for half-day till 1PM. As a special guest the drivers of first metro train service in 1984 were invited who gave us some anecdotes of that day. I had to catch Gitanjali express at 1350 so had to leave by 12:30 from venue. My host said that even if I leave by 1PM, it should be fine as stations is some 5-6 km only. However, I left a little early to give buffer and it turned out to a good decision. I took an ambassador cab which sprinted initially but while approaching Howrah bridge there was a jam. I waited for few minutes impatiently and kept on pestering the driver. He said that bridge is nearby and one can walk down to station. On seeing some other folks walking with their luggage, I decided to leave the cab. I walked for some distance and seemed that jam will open up. Not to lose out I climbed a bus going to Howrah. Soon it too got stuck and I had to again get down and walk. Now I was just before the bridge’s mouth and it seem things will ease out from here so again got into a cab who asked me 50 rupees. I said fine as long as I get in time. The entire stretch was horrible, horns blaring, vehicles screeching and overworked police folks trying to manage the traffic and humanity on the move. I entered from platform 1 side and figured that my train was on pf 21 almost half a km walk. Huffing and panting I finally reached the platform and boarded the train. This time I was in sleeper coach so remained glued to the window and watched the landscape of West Bengal and Jharkhand pass by and brooding over my trip.

I had just scratched the surface on this wonderful city. Other cities tom tom about fusion of old and new, preserving tradition and embracing modernity but I feel Kolkata does it without trying. I am longing for next visit already.

Some transport heritage of the city – Tram, Ambassador cab and Hand Rickshaw.

Tram @ Esplanade

Yellow ambassador cabs @ Esplanade

Handrickshaw still going strong