By MG to Udaipur, and in Style!

2004-10-12

by Mohan Bhuyan

Udaipur has been on my mind for almost a year now. More specifically the longest Metre Gauge route out of Delhi that winds it's way to Jaipur, Ajmer, Chittaurgarh & Udaipur, and beyond to Ahmedabad. Not long ago I discovered that parts of this route were to get the BG chop by the end of this fiscal and it would no longer be possible to go to either of these cities all the way by MG come April 2005. A YDM 4 Driver out of Sarai Rohilla told me that they would probably close Chittaurgarh - Udaipur for gauge conversion as early as October, a fact subsequently confirmed by our Rajeev Srivastava. So all plans for a winter journey were hastily brought forward to the end of September, Samit Roychoudhury of Kolkata brought on board, and tickets booked.

Samit and I were keen to go by First Class on the storied Chetak Express - visions of watching a Rajasthani sunset from a private coupe with a glass of the amber stuff in hand, and woodsmoke wafting in from passing villages were quite irresistible! But all attempts through irctc as well as the New Delhi reservation centre to book FC berths on the Chetak were met with a "Class Not Available" though I had seen Chetak with an FC coach a number of times. "Apparently they have discontinued the FC since you had last seen it" I was told by an exasperated booking clerk. So after much dithering and fretting about the costs thereof, we decided to up the ante and go by First AC instead. It'll probably be our last major journey on MG, we reasoned, so why not splurge!

Of course when we presented ourselves at Delhi's Sarai Rohilla station one sunny Friday afternoon, guess what we found next to our 1A/2A composite? A First Class Coach, with nary a soul on board! The Conductor (a burly, authoritative type) was busily fending off a bunch of obsequious waitlisted passengers and we asked him about the FC. He said that one could only book it from Ajmer onwards, there was no quota from Delhi! While that explained the "Class Not Available" it's nevertheless mystifying why IR is not interested in the greater revenue that it would earn from Delhi, where the train started. Of course, the conductor and his troops used this anomaly to their full advantage, directing short distance pax towards FC and pocketing a small premium for granting that privilege!

Samit and I took turns to check out the loco - the most drab looking YDM4 that DLW ever had the misfortune of producing. It's long hood was pointed towards Udaipur and someone had struck out "Abu Road" with a line through the middle and hastily stenciled "Phulera" underneath. Unimpressed, I returned to the comforts of our 1AC coupe.

And very well appointed it was too, with wide berths, a carpet, curtains, a wardrobe (with hangers), a plethora of lights, racks, plugpoints & fans and a table under whose lid lurked a wash basin (which Samit triumphantly unveiled to me some time later). It was as much style as one can hope to obtain on a MG Express nowadays and both of us were looking forward to a long journey in our private heaven. The only negative - there wasn't enough headroom to shove even our shoulder-slung bags under the lower berth, so we kept tripping over them all the way to Udaipur!

We departed at 1410 and wound our way slowly through the rubbish and stink that is all pervasive till Delhi Cantt. We ignored the squalor and kept ourselves busy checking that Samit had all the lines mapped accurately in his wonderful Great Indian Railway Atlas. The conductor came to verify our tickets and we immediately assaulted him with a barrage of questions. Taken aback he said he would return to chat with us after he had checked all the 2AC passengers.

There are only three things worth looking out for in Delhi's western suburbs - the Fairey Queen is sometimes stabled at Delhi Cantt, locked up in a barbwire cage reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay (I actually spotted it on my return 3 days later). Then there is a vast graveyard of rusting armored vehicles and tanks on the approach to Palam probably an entire division worth of once proud junk. And finally there is the airport, where a plane taking off passes low over the train. But the early afternoon has very few flights and when we crossed IGI it looked like the least busy international airport in the world.

Once we had left the smelly suburbs behind, we had lunch - Tandoori Chicken, Seekh Kebabs, a Paneer Tarka and Parathas. Since we were travelling in some style for a change, I saw no reason why we should have depended on the awful platform stuff one gets nowadays. Besides Chetak doesn't have a pantry car.

At Gurgaon several people tried to climb on to the roofs and a Railway Protection Force Havaldar went up the length of the train brandishing his baton and forcing them to dismount. But as we shall see later, this was a losing battle for the RPF.

After Gurgaon, we galloped along at top speed (just 70 kph on this line) enjoying the rolling gait and the clickety-clack that one doesn't get to hear on BG anymore. The conductor came back and after he learnt of our interest in all things IR (and being duly impressed with Samit's Atlas) unbidden he instructed the attendant to allow us access to the door any time we wanted, requesting only that we shut it when we chose to come back. Of course, the attendant & AC mechanic must have thought that we were the weirdest passengers they had ever encountered - travelling AC1, but hanging out of the door most of the time!

After a brief halt at Pataudi Road (yes, that's where the cricketing Nawabs come from) we entered Rewari, once India's busiest MG junction, now somewhat diminished by the invasion of BG. On the approach I showed Samit the Rewari Steam Centre where a bunch of us from IRFCA Delhi had had a wonderful time in February. After we stopped we went forward to have a chat with the Driver who didn't understand when we asked about "MPS". I have generally found that the abbreviations we bandy around so blithely on IRFCA make little sense to the genuine railwayman! Only when we used the expansion did the penny drop and he said that though it was 70 kph till Phulera (where his is stint would end), there would be several stretches where it would be lower. Samit and I briefly pondered the question of footplating and decided against it, preferring to enjoy the rare delights of 1AC instead.

As we left Rewari, we noticed a young man had joined us at the door. When the attendant questioned him he dropped a TTE's name. After standing there for some time he disappeared into the 2 AC section. It was a "normal" thing, no doubt replicated thousands of time everyday on IR's vast network, so we didn't think much of it then. But till well into the night this was going to be a source of immense entertainment for us.

On the way to Ringus, a state highway runs next to the road for quite a while. The cars and jeeps would overtake us easily, not so the trucks and buses. One such bus driver kept pace with our loco for a long time, willing us to take him on. I'm sure our Driver couldn't have cared less! After several minutes of this the bus had to stop somewhere and we won without even trying!

The landscape was the usual Haryana croplands interspersed with untidy villages that are actually much more prosperous than they look. Once in a while, a few outriders of the Aravalli Hills would suddenly rear up to break the monotony of the unending plain. Most of these hills had little white temples on top and I wondered what the view of the line must be like from up there. We divided our time between the doors and the coupe. Upper Quadrant Semaphores had taken over after Rewari (lower Quadrant from Delhi) much to my delight. It'd been a long while since I'd been on a line governed by UQ's (my favourite signals) so I drank my fill

With the sun low in the sky, we pulled into the town of Narnaul, where lots of people were waiting for the train. Soon the roofs were full, including ours and we stepped out to photograph the scene. The RPF was trying to bring some order to all the frenzied scrambling and our attendant said that the rush was unusual. One constable seeing me with the camera grinned and said, "What can we do? Can't stop people from going to the Mela!" Apparently an important temple near Ringus was holding it's annual fair, hence the rush.

At Dabla, which Samit had marked as a Junction in his atlas, we looked vainly for the branch to Singhana. We were told that that particular line (a private one) had long since disappeared. As the Conductor put it, "we (meaning IR) can't take the risk of running our trains on private lines! What if someone forgets to pull a switch?"

More people got on at Neem Ka Thana and by now we were dying for some hot chai, which the attendant said, could be purchased only at Ringus. Soon after Neem Ka Thana we were made to wait for a goods train going in the opposite direction. The conductor said that Neem Ka Thana was the transshipment point for cement in the region. Trains from cement units farther south would come up to here and trucks would take over for the rest of the journey to towns around Haryana as well as to Delhi. As to why these cement trains didn't go all the way to Delhi or Rewari was left unexplained.

By the time we got to Ringus it was dark and after finding some "kulhad" (earthen cups) tea laced with strongly scented buffalo milk we picked up some pakodas (batter fried potato & other veg) for evening cocktails.

Soon after leaving Ringus it was time to crack the Johnny Walker Black Label I had got along and raise several toasts to the Metre Gauge and ourselves. A last minute decision to bring ice cubes in a thermos flask proved perspicacious. I briefly contemplated inviting the conductor to join us (we had had several friendly encounters by then) but decided against it because he was still on duty. I was glad I didn't, because the Conductor had his own Director's Special Whiskey. And I learned later that he had shut himself up in the other coupe, swilling the stuff down quickly, and working himself into an extraordinary rage that would by turn entertain and stupefy us, all the way to Ajmer!

Apparently the fellow who had stood by the door after Rewari was a relative of one of the junior Ticket Examiners and the latter had allowed him to sit in 2AC without so much as a by your leave to the Conductor. So from time to time, the Conductor would summon the erring TTE and let loose a volley of invective and threats. His language was extremely coarse and he didn't care that at every station passengers and hangers-on would crowd around to watch this unfolding drama. In between all this he would engage Samit and me in pleasant conversation, bumming cigarettes and giving us nuggets about the line on which he had served for 27 years. He even inquired if we were carrying dinner because there would be little on offer at Phulera, where the hawkers couldn't bring their carts to the MG platforms (as he kindly explained). A surrealistic experience if ever there was one!

Phulera is an important junction for both BG and MG, with lines from Jodhpur & Jaipur converging here. MACL signaling and a Route Relay Interlocking Cabin marked the beginning of token less territory for the Metre Gauge as well (I assumed). It has quite a big yard and it looked like there were more MG lines than there were BG. We got down for a smoke and the Conductor began his nth harangue of the hapless TTE.

Phulera to Ajmer is dual track (BG & MG) like Delhi-Rewari and saw the best run of the Chetak Express, galloping away like it's namesake. Since all YDM4's in the area have a little red mark painted at the 75 kph mark on the speedometer, I guess we never exceeded that speed, but the bounce and sway of the MG makes it feel like 90 kph. We had a quick dinner (more Tandoori and Kebabs) and rushed for the door. Though we were stopped once or twice for a goods train to cross, we whizzed through each block section, rocking from side to side like a ship in choppy seas.

Just as we were leaving Kishangarh, where the Conductor got yet another opportunity to have a go despite the pleas from all the other TTE's, we saw the BG Ashram Express with twin WDM2s entering and slowing to a stop. We decided to remain at the door to see how long it would take for this monster to overtake us, and capture it on film.

Actually it took a heck of a long time - two stations and nearly 24 km before the lead loco of the Ashram roared by our open door, it's Driver waving at us when he saw the camera. Perhaps if we hadn't slowed down just before Madar (where Ajmer Division takes over from Jaipur Division) we may well have made it to Ajmer before the Ashram. Still it was fun leaning out of the door and looking rearwards while we were at top speed - first darkness, then a glow, then a pinprick of light in the midst of that glow, which became bigger and bigger to finally envelope us with a roar.

At Madar we had to endure a long wait, first at the outer and then again at the station proper. A couple of goods trains went by, one of them BG. The hapless TTE begged for forgiveness and touched the Conductor's feet, all to no avail. The abuse actually got worse and by now I was feeling sorry for the poor chap. But the AC mechanics and attendants were enjoying it because they had had runs in with this TTE before (he had demanded bedding in sleeper class on a previous trip!)

At long last we trooped into Ajmer, where mercifully the ticketing staff were to change. On the way in Samit, who had studied here for 8 years, pointed out the Mayo College Campus and it's famed clock tower. Over on the BG side, the Ahmedabad-Delhi Rajdhani Express came in quietly and left quietly. All the action was on our MG platform where our now totally out-of-control conductor had gathered the RPF as well as the entraining staff round him. Nobody else was too interested in pursuing the case, the RPF guys sauntered off after a while and the incoming conductor started pleading with the older man to let bygones be bygones. As our train left Ajmer we could see him on the platform still roaring with rage at the erring TTE and his relative. After seeing off Ajmer, we asked our attendant to wake us up at Chittaurgarh around 5 a.m. and began to make our beds. As I struggled to tuck the sheets under the now folded backrest, Samit sighed and showed me the really cool flaps that had been put there specifically for that purpose! Next it was my turn to smirk because he took about ten minutes and half a dozen scary attempts to climb up to the top berth!

Chittaurgarh is the only station I have seen where BG plays second fiddle to the MG with the former consigned to the outlying platforms. The setting of the station is quite nice with the magnificent Chittaurgarh Fort visible to the East, but it is shabby and flyblown. Just before we left the famed Meenakshi Express that once ran from Jaipur to Secunderabad came in from the Ratlam side and halted on the next platform. Even with the now curtailed run to Purna, it remains numero uno in terms of distance covered by a MG Express in India.

The first rays of the sun were streaking the sky as we left Chittaurgarh with the loco having changed ends. Retracing our footsteps, we stayed with the BG line to Kota till the Berach River after which we turned westwards for Mavli Jn and Udaipur. Just because we were in Rajasthan I was expecting the landscape to be dry, rocky and barren. On the contrary the area between Chittaurgarh and Mavli is quite fertile with fields of maize, barley and sundry vegetables. The new BG alignment to Chittaurgarh is more or less ready, mostly hugging the MG line but straying at times when the curves proved to be too tight.

Mavli turned out to be one of those junctions that look terribly important on the map (4 lines converging) but actually turned out to be a bit of a damp squib with just 2 platforms and 4 loop lines. This is the beginning of the famous ghat line that crosses the Aravallis to Marwar as well as a short branch that goes to a small town called Bari Sadri to the south. The once-a-day passenger to Bari Sadri was on one of the platforms and Samit was able to shoot it as we left.

After Mavli we were able to pick up some speed but we were running late by 45 minutes or so. The appearance of a range of hills in the distance signaled Udaipur was fast approaching. This was substantiated by man made signs as well - at Khemli there was a medium sized good yards which we clattered through without slowing and after Debari a huge plant of Hindustan Zinc Ltd.

Also at Debari, which is a narrow pass between two steep hills, the line passes through the gateway of what must have been the outer fortifications of Udaipur. Samit and I remembered John Lacey's wonderful sunset shot of a YG passing through this gateway. A picture that has inspired me to shoot directly into the setting sun whenever the opportunity presents itself, with varying results. Of course, the gateway is too narrow for the soon-to-be-ready BG and they can't destroy a heritage structure, so it has had to take recourse to a tunnel. Thus in a few months, no train will ever pass through the Debari Gate again.

Our fine run from Mavli ended at Rana Pratap Nagar, the last station before Udaipur City. In the beginning this was the railhead for Udaipur before the line was extended to Ahmedabad and Udaipur City station was built. Samit spotted a nice looking MG crane and wanted to photograph it but there were too many official looking people on the platform. Besides we couldn't be sure how long we would wait here. Later we discovered that we had stopped to let the Ahmedabad-Delhi Express through and Samit got a consolation shot of the approaching train. The distance covered by this train is perhaps second only to the Meenakshi Express on MG.

After Rana Pratap Nagar the train runs atop a high embankment so you get an early glimpse of Udaipur and some of it's monuments such as the City Palace and the hilltop Sajjangarh palace. But first impressions of the city are not as flattering as the guidebooks proclaim. As with any other Indian city reached by rail, you get to see the warts first. But as we discovered later that day, it's worth the visit. In the end we were an hour late pulling into Udaipur City, but then we weren't in any hurry to finish our wonderful journey!

Afterword:

Chetak Express is named after the gallant steed that saved the life of Maharana Rana Pratap of Mewar during the Battle of Haldighati. Rana Pratap was the only Rajput ruler not to kowtow to the Mughal Empire (in his case the Emperor Akbar). Chetak is revered in the Mewar region of which Udaipur is the capital. References to Chetak are everywhere. And after only a day in Udaipur, it seemed to me that the horse is better regarded than it's rider is!

Material provided by Mohan Bhuyan, Copyright © 2004.
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