Come 2010 and the Metro system in Delhi will have a stop practically opposite my house! I haven’t yet figured what points south the Metro will take me but I do know that it would get me to many points north and that to in the quickest of time. Can’t wait..
One of those places is New Delhi Railway Station but since the Metro is still a couple of years away, I was forced to sit it out in the most horrendous traffic possible and watch as the minutes ticked away. The evening of Friday, the 26th of September ’08 – at a little past 7 pm the Vaishali Express would pull out of New Delhi station and it was a fight to the finish for me.
Make it, I did! And that would be the only unpleasant part of a perfectly enjoyable ‘rail trip’ to explore some of the last vestiges of the Metre Gauge system in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India.
The Vaishali Express is a Broad Gauge train and after an overnight journey would deliver us to Gorakhpur the next morning. Probably a month before our trip, the states of Bihar and UP had been severely affected by flooding – a regular monsoon phenomenon in these parts. We awoke the next morning while crossing the Ghagra River (a tributary of the Ganges) and emerged onto acres upon acres of inundated farm land..
Gorakhpur lies at the eastern end of India’s largest state and we would work our way back west towards Delhi, along the Nepal border for the most part – a region known as the Terai. A visit to this town had been in the offing for me and for good reason to. My paternal grand father had been posted here twice as a railway man and Gorakhpur was the only Zonal Railway Headquarter – of 9 on the Indian Railway system – that I hadn’t visited before.
On arrival, a cycle rickshaw was sought for an hour long tour of the railway offices and colony at Gorakhpur. As with most large railway colonies in small towns, this one to was serene and pretty, with a delightful selection of colonial bungalows.
While I didn’t quite find the house(s) where my grand dad had stayed as a young officer, I got a good feel for the place. And I really wouldn’t be surprised if not much has changed since his days there.
Our first journey on the metre gauge was from Gorakhpur to Gonda on the very grand sounding Kapilavastu Express. It was far from grand and an Express only in name! Nevertheless, it wasn’t really the ‘express’ character of trains that we had come to see – if anything, it was a different way of life – a way of life which was a lot simpler, a lot more innocent than what you’d find on India’s Broad Gauge.
With gauge conversion almost imminent, all of that was soon about to change though. But so far, colourful little stations with even more colourful sounding names, had stood the test of time.
At each station along the way, an idyllic scene would present itself. In this instance, village elders seated under a tree while a simian (look closely!) worked its way up! The location – Bridgmanganj!
Eastern UP is as lush as it gets and for those parts that had escaped nature’s wrath, endless vistas of paddy looked most inviting from a farmer’s point of view. This one, however, was mine.. 😉
As the Kapilavastu made it’s slow march west towards Gonda, the sun finally gave up the chase and so ended day 1 of our trip.
The flooding had affected our plans as well. In the normal course, we would have continued West from Gonda. Instead, we had to make a detour South to Lucknow, stay the night there and work our way North West again the next morning. That same evening, Lucknow added itself to a growing list of Indian cities afflicted with a spate of bomb blasts. Unaware of that fact, we slept through the night, in a room that overlooked magnificent Charbagh station.
Mailani was to be our next stop and we awoke early on the morning of day 2, reaching Lucknow’s Aishbaug station in time to board the Ruhelkhand Express. This train actually ran like one, making few halts and sticking to its schedule. Short of the Gomti River, we made our first stop at the station of Lucknow City, with just enough time to spare for a quick fill of water!
While potable water may be hard to come by, milk is never in short supply here! Being on an early morning departure out of Lucknow, meant that we would cross a handfull of trains, bringing in the mornings supply of milk into a city centre, along with its share of roof top riders!
At Mailani, we were received by our most gracious host and whisked away to the comforts of a farm house, where, on arrival, lunch was served as we sat in the verandah like royalty, shaded by a massive Pipal tree. It was an all vegetarian affair with farm fresh pickings – a whole world apart in taste compared with the same vegetables available in our cities.
Apart from a rich agrarian life, Mailani is best known for being the town closest to Dudhwa National Park. In the evening, we were taken for a drive past the Tiger Reserve and some of the trails we passed along the way, looked most tempting!
Dudhwa National Park deserves well more than a casual drive through and someday, hopefully, I would be back there again. In the meantime, what we had really driven out to see was some of the destruction caused by flooding. This time the culprit was the Sharda River. While the Sharda is only a tributary of the Ghagra, its surging waters and seemingly endless expanse gave it the appearance of the mighty Bhramaputra on that day.
The railway line from Gonda to Mailani, which we should ideally have travelled on, may have ceased operations momentarily but its very embankment was serving as a dyke – protecting several villages and many precious acres of farm land from going under. The rivers had, nevertheless, caused a breach in several places. The railways, on their part, worked on a war footing to bridge those gaps and we were fortunate enough to witness a works train make its way out over one such restored section of track.
The menu for dinner was strictly non vegetarian – free range chicken or ‘desi murg’, as its known colloquially, washed down with many a ‘Patiala peg‘ – over conversations ranging from tracking predators to the best kept secrets of agriculture. A most pleasant and memorable evening indeed.
In the morning, well before the sun was out, we awoke to a somewhat cool and mist covered farm – apparently not unusual for these parts, at this time of year.
We were now headed towards Pilibhit – a larger, more important town than Mailani, but for us, only a junction to change trains. Given the early departure from Mailani, our train provided commuter service into Pilibhit, picking up scores of passengers en route. At each station along the way, the infamous auto rickshaws or ‘Vikrams‘ were pleasantly MIA! Instead, eco friendly ‘tangas’ still ruled these parts.
On my return to Delhi, I happened to mention the word ‘Pilibhit’ to my mother and she immediately reprimanded me for not having brought home any rice. Apparently rice is Pilibhit’s most well known produce! Of course, none of us knew it then and instead, spent most of our time in transit, gorging ourselves silly with some superb ‘aloo tikis’ (potato pancakes) and ‘kulhad wali chai’ (tea in an earthen pot). Breakfast, Indian Rail style!
On to the land of ‘Jhumka Gira Re‘ AKA Bareilly! While we didn’t visit any of its famed bazaars or come across any dropped Jhumkas along the way, it certainly seemed like a very colourful city from the train!
It was lunch time when we alighted at Bareilly City station so we made a beeline for a friend’s house, where, over chilled beers and spicy ‘biryani‘, we were treated to some of the most succulent ‘seekh kebabs‘ I have ever tasted. If that wasn’t enough, our hosts made it a point to mention that since it was the month of Ramadan, there were much better kebabs available in the evening!!
The food was tasty for sure but a tad to hot for my ‘spoilt in the US’ palate to handle. So off we went for some cooling ‘lassi‘ to Dinanath Sweets – another culinary bastion of Bareilly.
The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting the railway workshop at Izzatnagar. Come evening and it was time to board our last Metre Gauge train, North West to Lalkua. On arrival there, another splendid meal was had at ‘Pankaj da dhaba’, right outside Lalkua station – this time, all vegetarian!
Later that night, the Ranikhet Express from Kathgodam pulled in to Lalkua a little past its scheduled time. On a short overnight run, it would take us back to Delhi and bring to an end a trip spanning no less than 8 train journeys, 4 nights, 3 days and an immeasurable amount of fun and adventure.
This time, for a change, I wasn’t running to catch the train 😉
A full set of pics can be seen here.
Map courtesy : Samit Roychoudhury