A Long Ride to Half Way
by Mohan Bhuyan
A sticky night in July, Lumding Jn, 2.30 am: The portly ticket collector holds our Sleeper Class ticket in his pudgy hands, eyes us disapprovingly and sniffs, "the AC Retiring Room is Rs. 150 per head". We have just come in on the Kamrup Express from Dibrugarh Town at 80 bucks apiece in this our second attempt to conquer Northeast Frontier Railway's famous Hill Section. An earlier attempt involving an expensive (and hairy) flight from Kolkata to Silchar has ended in abject failure.
After arriving triumphantly at Badarpur we are told that the line is closed "due to subsidence” and would remain closed "till further notice". We had had to make our way out of the Barak Valley by road via Shillong, in between blockades called by the Khasi Students Union protesting the setting up of something or the other in the Garo Hills instead of in their own Khasi & Jaintia Hills. Yes, some of the problems of the Northeast are quite unique in their pettiness.
"Nevertheless, we'd like an AC Retiring Room", I reply, quickly reading the hefty TC's mind. Taken aback at this fiscal foolishness but managing to keep a straight face, he takes out his big ledger and then a receipt book and writes us in. I hand over the money and he returns the change and the receipt but tosses our (used) ticket into a drawer. Spoilt by too much AC travel, I have hardly slept a wink on the sleeper class run from Dibrugarh and am dying for a cold shower and a few hours of undisturbed air-conditioned sleep. But I always see red when I encounter petty bureaucracy, like when a ticket is permanently collected by a Ticket Collector. We argue, our voices rising with each thrust and parry. Finally, a partial concession - "All right, you can collect your ticket from this office tomorrow morning!" A minor concession from the official but enough for this argumentative Indian to reach for the escape hatch with a few shreds of dignity intact.
The Retiring Rooms are in a new block at the Mariani end of the main platform. After rousing the wrong man, who is surprisingly gracious at being disturbed, we are given our rooms on the first floor by a chowkidar whose obsequious manner is a pleasant contrast to the officiousness of the Ticket Collector. In the front is the BG area and a WDM 2 attached to an empty passenger train gurgles into the night, alive but unattended. Bharat and Samit try their hand at night photography, while I stand in the shower for a long time.
The morning is bright and sunny. To our surprise, the WDM 2 is still gurgling – a colossal waste of diesel, we all agree. The terrace provides a panoramic view of the station and we are pleased to see a crowded MG yard and a shed for YDM 4s.
The Cachar Express from Silchar arrives not long after its scheduled time - a good omen. Seems like the notoriously fickle Hill Section is back to normalcy. Many of the Cachar's passengers board the train headed by the gurgling WDM2, which then departs for Tinsukia.
We need to buy Sleeper Class Tickets on the Barak Valley Express – that’s the best on offer. So we leave Samit on the platform to supervise the preparation of our omelet breakfast and go to the booking office on the other side of the yard. Two counters are open, one with a sign saying "Down" and the other with a sign saying "Up & Hill Section". Both have long queues and ever mindful of petty bureaucracy, I join the longer line in front of the second window. When my turn comes I ask for Sleeper Class Tickets to Haflong. This counter is only for general tickets I am told by the clerk, sleeper class tickets can be bought from the adjoining PRS Centre when it opens "after my train leaves". "Then give me ordinary tickets", I say, quickly calculating and handing over the Mail/Express fare. Sighing loudly he hands back most of the money. Apparently the Barak Valley Express is a Passenger train up to Badarpur. The Tripura Passenger to Manu stopped running a few months ago after another big subsidence, though nobody seems to have informed the Railway Board about that for it remains in the timetable.
We rejoin Samit for a nice breakfast - he has ensured the omelets are just so. On the MG platform, every available seat on the BV Express is already taken. The SLR is almost empty but we know better than to board it. Peculiar to NFR, in every train the last coach is reserved for the RMS and the mobile dakwallas guard their domain zealously. Though we have already bluffed our way into one such coach on the Ledo Intercity Express, we move away this time and head for the Sleeper Coaches. On the way we pass the Ticket Collector's Office and I briefly ponder the matter of last night's ticket, deciding (wisely no doubt) not to resume the argument and to abandon our ticket to its purgatory in some dusty file.
The general coaches are full, so we enter a crowded sleeper class coach about halfway down the train, telling a TTE on the way that we'd like to upgrade when he comes along to check our tickets. He looks at us strangely but agrees. Later we find out that we needn't bother with such niceties as everybody in the sleeper coach has 2S tickets and the TTE is satisfied so long as everybody has a ticket, even a platform ticket!
We dump our bags on the first available upper berth and along with a bunch of young men crowd around the middle door. On the BG side, the Brahmaputra Mail has come in; more than 2000 km to go before Old Delhi is reached the day after tomorrow. I've done it before in 2nd Class, in the height of summer to boot. “Never again”! I swear to myself.
We depart from Lumding on time to sighs of relief all around, this is the first day train through the hill section in 3 days, and wend our way out of the station and past the transshipment yard, which is in a long pit between the BG and MG lines. To the left is a substantial goods yard for both gauges that is buzzing with activity. But Bharat who has been here years before says the goods yard has seen better and far busier days.
As we pass the IOC depot that supplies fuel to the southern states of Tripura and Mizoram, the Brahmaputra Mail creeps up from behind in a bid to overtake us and I raise my camera to capture the event. Just as I'm ready to click, we veer southwards towards forest-covered hills and the Mail disappears behind some trees. Bharat of course, knows exactly when to press the shutter.
Just before the jungle begins, we cross the Lumding River, a wide stream really, where a new bridge is being built for BG. The grey RCC pillars are the first sign that after a hundred years, the railway in these parts is going to take on a less than attractive form. The river also marks the boundary between the Nagaon and North Cachar Hills Districts or as the latter is more commonly known NC Hills. We are now firmly in tribal territory, in the land of the Dimasa, the Karbi, the Kuki, the Naga, the Jaintia and the Hmar.
In the Dimasa language "disa" is the word for a stream or river and there are half a dozen stations in the Hill Section that have taken their name from a neighbouring torrent. The first of these is Mandardisa, also the first stop for the BV Passenger. As we enter the platform loop, I see that there is a big crowd of labourers waiting to load huge sacks into the luggage van. "Nice to see parcel traffic", I think to myself. But the pleasure is short lived because what should have been a ten minute halt extends to nearly an hour. Delays are a feature of this line I remind myself, and things don’t move at Delhi’s pace.
From past experience I know that we are going to be stuck at one or two godforsaken stations for inordinate lengths of time. In the beginning there will be no apparent reason, and when one despairs of ever leaving that desolate place, word will filter down the line - a failed loco, a broken rail, shunting at a station ahead, or Heaven forbid; yet another “subsidence”. Mandardisa is the first port of delay today, and I wonder which other station(s) will share the honour as the day progresses. Or, are we going to be lucky today?
The forest closes in on the line, and for us city dwellers it's quite a sight. Tropical forest that has received a good dose of monsoon rain can look as impenetrable as a hippy’s beard and in the Hill Section the tree line begins less than an arm’s length from the track.
At times the bamboo from either side of the track meet overhead and the train passes beneath a long green canopy as if through a tunnel of leaves and we are wonderstruck. Surely there are long stretches where the line must be invisible from the air!
Bamboo is the dominating plant and a staple of the local economy. Locals cut the wild bamboo, tie them up in neat bundles of 10-15 stalks each and deposit them next to the track unguarded. Presumably when they have collected enough, they just toss each bundle into a passing train and jump in as well! There can't be another explanation - from time to time we come upon bundles of bamboo dumped next to the track and not a soul in sight. Possibly the owners are deep inside the forest, hacking away at more bamboo thickets. The bamboo heads south to Panchgram near Badarpur Jn, where there is a paper mill.
The train is crowded but not like a Virar Local at 6 pm; there is room to stand inside. Even so there are quite a few people on the roofs of the coaches. Young men and boys preferring the thrills and openness of the rooftops to the narrow confines of the MG coaches. We look at them enviously and wonder whether we should join them. But every now and again a tough looking bough protrudes from the closely hugging tree line and grazes the rooftops like a knife scraping crumbs from a slice of toast, prompting the roofriders into all kinds of evasive acrobatics. Better to leave the top of the train to the young and the foolish we decide, and wait expectantly for the first dislodged body to come thudding down beside the track, or worse!
We are already into the hills of the Hill Section, but for now the permanent way makes good use of the low ground in between. In any case the hills are not forbiddingly high - the highest peak in the entire Barail range can’t be more than five thousand feet high. Instead of height, these hills have a rather different appeal - they have to be the most thickly forested ones that have ever skirted a railway line in India. Bharat makes the point that nowhere else in India does such verdant nature come within touching distance of the passengers. I suggest the Hassan - Mangalore line as a possible candidate, but none of us have seen it yet.
The metre gauge permanent way blends beautifully into the landscape, as if this mountainous jungle is its natural habitat. Every challenge posed by the terrain is met with grace and dignity as if in apology for the unwarranted intrusion by man and his ribbon of steel.
The line bends at the slightest provocation and a guide rail is added to the track at each curve. Additionally there are numerous S turns when the front portion of the train is turning right while rear hasn't yet completed a left turn. Each fold in the hills yields a stream and an elegant bridge usually curving and with aesthetic steel piers in addition to the ones made from stone.
There are gradients galore, but at this stage none that are especially steep. Where it cannot yield ground, the line takes recourse to carefully carved out, narrow and steep walled cuttings. And the inevitable impassable hill is tackled with a delicately bored low ceiling tunnel.
If the metre gauge blends with the terrain like a chameleon on a twig then the new broad gauge alignment crashes through it with all the subtlety of an enraged rhinoceros. The new alignment will be slightly offset from the old in many places, so it has made an angry slash through the forest and the effect is rather dismaying. What is it about BG that it can't seem to get by without dominating proceedings and crushing everything else underfoot? Where MG runs along at ground level, it builds for itself huge embankments, where the MG pushes through with a tunnel or a cutting, it simply demolishes an entire hill and every one of the MG’s beautiful S curves have been converted into gigantic dollar signs with the BG slicing right through the middle. The amount of earth that has been cut and moved to accommodate the wider line is stupefying, the ugly brown scars in that sea of green testament to the fact that big may be faster but certainly never better.
Bharat considers the devastation wreaked by the gauge conversion a personal affront. Every time the BG alignment swims into view or invades his viewfinder, he mutters something disdainful; ''here comes big brother again", or "oh, no the BIG shit again", or "wow, what a beautiful picture that would make" (when BG does something particularly gross). I point out that it wouldn't take long for the tropical foliage to cover all the exposed scars, but somehow we all know that BG will always keep an arm’s length and more between itself and the forest and it can never be the same again. And for now we have to take comfort in the fact that in spite of BG's depredations the line is still beautiful - you only have to look the other way!
Through all this beauty and havoc we've been trundling along at a sedate 30-40 kph, stopping briefly at Hatikhali and Dijaobra. At both places there is a small knot of people waiting to board. The guys on top of the coaches are having a great time while we are being hemmed in at the door by the many people who are as keen on leaning out as we are. Though they move aside without a murmur whenever we want to take a photograph, the roof looks rather more inviting. Besides, nobody has been swept off it yet.
At Langting the station is on a curve and a sizable crowd is waiting for the train. As a result the halt is a little longer than the previous ones and many of the standing passengers alight and mill around on the open platform. A railway station crammed with people in the middle of a jungle is a strange sight. Mother Nature agrees because the sun suddenly disappears and it starts to rain quite heavily, forcing those on the platform to run helter-skelter for shelter.
The rain stops within minutes of our departure from Langting and the trees glisten in the wetness. Just before the next station Dihako there is a signboard with a message that is incongruous for a metre gauge jungle line, "Colour Light Signaling Begins". What next we wonder, double tracks? route relay interlocking? The first MACL by way of the rather rusty looking Dihako Outer appears and next to it a warning for inattentive Drivers - the remnants of a derailed goods train. When we reach the station Bharat and I solemnly agree that rooftop travel is dicey, look at each other and clamber up without further ado. Samit stays behind because he is absolutely certain that he won't be able to climb up, and even if he does, won't be able to stay up!
I've only done this once before and Bharat probably twice - if you count roofing it on the narrow gauge Gwalior network as experience. I can't speak for him, but I am nervous - "Railfan's rooftop revelry ends on the rails" is the kind of headline that comes to mind immediately. We decide to perch on the edge of our coach, facing the loco (and the oncoming trees), with our legs either dangling over the coupling or resting on the awning where a covered vestibule should have been. If things get dicey the lid of the water inlet is just behind us and by grabbing it we won't slide off the roof. But makeshift safety measures are quickly forgotten because the vista is altogether different from the roof. Standing at the door totally pales in comparison; what a difference a few feet of altitude can make!
At Dihako's Advance Starter we are informed that the MACL territory has ended! I wonder which babu of all babus decided one fine day that godforsaken Dihako was just the right place to try out MACL signaling. That the experiment came to naught is apparent at the next station Mupa where disused and corroded MACL's stand in unblinking sightlessness next to the working semaphores.
The rooftop is the best place to enjoy the line and its setting. Sometimes there is a gap between hills and one can see for great distances - just miles and miles of forest covered hills. But mostly we are in amongst the trees and the feeling is one of venturing into the unknown. The farther we go, the denser the forest and many times the front part of the train just disappears into the trees and an involuntary shiver runs down my spine as we follow suit.
This sense of foreboding is accentuated whenever the train is about to enter a tunnel. As the mouth of the tunnel approaches it looks as if the humans on top are being sacrificed in assembly line fashion to some terrible god with an anaconda mouth.
And in the bowels of the tunnels it is pitch black and I can't see my hand when I hold it in front of my face. The din of the train and the high-pitched howls of excitement from the young men up front add to terror. Moreover, I am petrified of being whacked on the head by some unexpected stalactite or a similar protuberance forgetting that the locals wouldn't sit on the roof if there are any dangers lurking in the tunnels. Still, I urge Bharat to take out his torch and we keep the feeble beam fixed at a point about 6 feet in front of us and at eye level, ready to sway out of the way though there will be little reaction time. Thankfully, there is a light at the end of every tunnel and we reach it unscathed every time.
While I remain am scared stiff inside each tunnel, we get used to the leafy branches that graze the top of the train in sly attempts to either nudge us off or give us a resounding slap across the face. Most times one just needs to sway to one side or duck. But once in a while there is no option but to lie flat on our backs and hope for the best as something that spans the entire width of the train comes swooping towards us. I have never been more conscious of my protruding belly as I am now. Immediately after each close call, our first reaction is to turn around and see whether the guys behind us are still there. Just as the guys in front of us keep turning around to check on us and smiling in disappointment when they see that these novices from another world are still hanging on.
After one or two near misses when we are being inattentive while photographing or looking at some wondrous sight instead of in front, the boys behind us move closer and take us under their wing. And so we meet Subijit Thaosen and Sandeep Langthasa, who have boarded the roof at Langting and are on their way back to school at Haflong.
After another long, curving and terrifying tunnel we enter the valley of the Mahur River, which seems to be the most populous stretch of the entire line. By populous, I mean that occasionally the line will traverse a patch of paddy and one or two hamlets can be seen. Still, the tree line is never very far away and the loco is not averse to the occasional game of hide and seek.
We come to a station with a jarring name - Kalachand. Apparently it is a "new" station built during WW II, but to call it Kalachand? Imagine if you suddenly came to a station between Delhi and Rewari called Thiruvanmiyur or Narkeldanga! Must have been the bright idea of some long dead English babu to honour a just deceased Indian babu. As the train comes to a stop, Subijit and Sandeep tell us to get down from the roof because Maibong the next station is policed by the CRPF who don't like rooftop revelers. If we linger and are caught Bharat and I will have to hold our earlobes between thumb and forefinger and perform sit-ups on the platform!
Back inside the coach we find that Samit has tired of the scenery, and despairing at the total absence of concrete commandeered the TTE's push-down seat and is playing Tetris on his mobile. Of course, we interrupt him just as he is about to reach a new high-level score and he wants us to go back to the roof.
Maibong is the ancient capital of the Dimasa Cacharis and Subijit tells us that we'll be able to see some ruins from the train. The moment arrives and he points to a couple of stone pillar bases on the far bank of the Mahur River. We successfully hide our disappointment, though there must have been an impressive structure there long ago.
Maibong is a biggish town by local standards and is probably a subdivisional HQ of NC Hills so the station boasts of a covered platform and a refreshment stall. The armed CRPF constables on duty eye everyone suspiciously, even menacingly. I wonder if they'll ever learn not to appear like an occupying army. At least there seems to be some improvement; the last time I was in these parts regular army soldiers in full combat gear were doing the job.
As the train leaves Maibong, a few daredevils quickly climb up to top of the coaches ahead of us just as the train begins to move and the CRPF are rendered powerless. We decide to wait for the next station Wadrengdisa before joining them. Climbing up when the train is in motion is asking for trouble. At Wadrengdisa our TTE notices that we are making ready to go up to the roof and smilingly suggests that we are not up to it. "The locals are used to this, maybe you should remain in the carriage", he says.
"Don't worry", says Bharat in his best I've-climbed-Everest-thrice tone, "we've done this many times before, we'll be quite alright." Turning away from us, he reaches up and hoists himself up to the buffer, reaches up again and promptly loses his footing but manages to arrest what would have been a totally ignominious fall. After we've all finished laughing (the TTE the loudest) I suddenly realise it's my turn and become very conscious of the eyes on me. Slowly and ponderously I heave myself up gasping and grunting and feeling foolish.
Once again we abandon ourselves to the joys of a rooftop ride through the wild. In this section the train rarely exceeds 25 kph; so in spite of all the lurching and the occasional tree rooftop travel is a breeze. Given the delay at Mandardisa, we've made good time and thoughts turn to a late lunch at Haflong, now barely 30 km away.
So we come to Daotuhaja the last station in the Mahur Valley. From here the line will make a spectacular ascent up the Mahur Saddle towards Haflong Hill and Jatinga - the high points on the line. Daotuhaja is an outpost of the Special RPF and they are a far cry from the scruffy, soft-in-the-middle types that one finds in the RPF or in the GRP. These guys are lean, well turned out and armed with 7.62 SLR's instead of the old.303. As the train reaches Daotuhaja a man in civvy's and an enormous belly disembarks and is received with some ceremony by an SRPF sub inspector, escorted to the station building and offered a chair. Turns out he is the boss and he does what all out of shape bosses do - checks the registers, signs a few things and loudly berates somebody for a minor misdemeanour. And since the BV Passenger shows no sign of wanting to depart and Bharat and I think it’s waiting for the SRPF chief to finish his inspection, which goads us into rude remarks about him and officials of his ilk.
Daotuhaja is a two line crossing station with a siding occupied by two water bearing tank wagons in bright silver. The station house doubles up as the barracks for the SRPF men and one of them is on permanent guard duty with a LMG suspended from the low sloping roof by a sling. On one side new quarters are being built for the station staff and beyond that there is a small hamlet and one or two shops. The other side behind the station building is prettier - paddy fields, the swift flowing Mahur and the ever-present tree clothed hills.
Time drags by slowly and we take pictures of Daotuhaja from all angles. All the unkind things we've said about him eventually reach the pot-bellied inspector's ear because he suddenly roars, "What are all these people doing on the roofs? Who are you people with the cameras, are you press reporters?" His underlings rush to shoo everyone from the rooftops and we dismount as well, without arguing, but slowly and sullenly. One can defend the cameras perhaps, but there really is no excuse for being on top of the train instead of in it!
Minutes become an hour and an hour becomes two - it's obvious that on this trip I'm going to see plenty of Daotuhaja. The last time it was Harangajao and Mailongdisa. As is the norm, the reason for the delay is not forthcoming at first. Lingering next to the ASM's office is the only recourse and finally we know that a goods train that preceded us has got stuck just after the next station Phiding. And as the ASM painstakingly relays a SOS from the marooned Driver further up the line, we realise that he is stuck precisely where the landslip took place a few days back. To be thwarted by the same act of nature in two different ways on two different days with a week in between - now that's a first!
The goods train is stuck because the affected spot is on a gradient has a new speed limit of just 10 kph, not enough to pull the laden wagons through. Our Guard, who is smartly tuned out in crisp whites and a necktie, informs us that a relief loco is going to come from behind, overtake us and push the offending goods train to Mahur and beyond to Lower Haflong. Till then, we wait!
We walk towards the hamlet on the edge of the station yard to find a rudimentary dhaba and a typically rural general provisions shop that remarkably stocks bottled water. A tough talking Dimasa whose lexicon does not include the word bargain is the owner. One of the masons working on the new staff quarters tries his luck and the shopkeeper becomes belligerent and for a few seconds I fear for the mason’s head. Bharat wants to have the pineapples on display and we agree immediately to the rather exorbitant price. The shopkeeper's wife slices them up for us and adds a coating of straight-from-Dandi-non iodised salt. Delicious!
Back near the train we aren't the only ones who look like rank outsiders. There is a Jamaat from Meerut of all places bound for Silchar of all places. In remote and roadless Daotuhaja Meerut feels impossibly far away - it may as well have been on the moon. Their leader washes himself crouched on the ballast, readying for namaaz and we engage him in conversation. His chaste Urdu is pleasing after a week of Bengali, Assamese, Teaplanterspeak and a couple of other incomprehensibles. They had come on the Brahmaputra Mail and had been stuck in Guwahati waiting for the line to open. They’ve come to these parts before and were yet to enjoy a smooth uninterrupted journey to Silchar. “Join the gang”, I say to myself.
There is a minor flutter when a light loco approaches from the north, pauses briefly and heads out towards Phiding. We still have a long time to wait before it banks the goods train up the incline to Lower Haflong and so I ask Subijit & Sandeep about life in NC Hills, where an entire day has to be set aside for a 50 km journey. Meanwhile the fat inspector has stripped to his chaddis and is playing carrom with one of his men on the station verandah. Gross!
The wait at Daotuhaja shifts from the painful to the intolerable - I have even read the entire movement order of the SRPF from Punjab that (for no fathomable reason) is pasted on the station's notice board. The transfer took weeks to accomplish and their battalion HQ is in faraway New Jalpaiguri. They spend their time patrolling the line and guarding the godforsaken stations. Rather them than me, I think.
When I am ready to pull my hair out in frustration, the Guard marches briskly back to his post at the end of the train and everybody stirs. A long blast from the loco and we're off to cheers all round. After Daotuhaja the line crosses the Mahur River and doubles back in a 180-degree curve pointing back towards Lumding. But not for long, after another 180 deg curve we are pointed in the right direction but abreast and above Daotuhaja. The line has used an inverted S in order to gain height if not distance and like an unwanted relative, Daotuhaja just refuses to fade away into the distance.
The Phiding Outer is at the top of the inverted S and it’s at "on". Once again we scramble quickly on to the roof and the views are spectacular. From here we can see the line at the two lower levels and in the distance - unforgettable Daotuhaja.
The wait at Phiding Outer becomes a prolonged one and by now the sun is hanging low in the sky. It's time for the Jamaat from Meerut to pray and they alight from their coach onto a small portion of raised ground and face towards the west. This is a rare sight for the locals on the roof and in the carriages, most of who don't belong to any of the major religions. As they stare curiously at the Jamaat, I have other worries - what will the Jamaat do if the train suddenly restarts in mid Namaaz?
We restart well after the Jamaat is done and safely back inside. Before we reach Phiding proper a few drops of rain prompt me to take out my umbrella. I'm looking ridiculous enough for Bharat to take a picture. The rain comes and goes, but is not heavy enough to drive us from the roof yet.
Beyond Phiding we come to the landslip that has bedeviled our tour of Assam. It's quite a big slide and the repaired track has a substantial depression in the middle.
So any train entering the section is severely jackknifed - the front on an ascending gradient when the rear is still descending. All this on a 10 kph limit - little wonder the goods train had stalled.
There are many workers in that jungle camp who've done a helluva job to get the line working again, sleeping in lean-to's, eating bad food, plagued by tiny jungle mosquitoes, and still being able to express delight at having their picture taken.
We are now fairly high up on the side of a sub-range of hills and this proves to be the best part of the ride because the trees don't close in and one can see far greater distances than before. A cleft between two hills unveils a swiftly flowing stream and another beautifully curved bridge. With a start I realise that there are now more people clinging to the side of the loco than there are atop the carriages. Perhaps it’s the threat of rain.
We enter the longest and most terrifying tunnel of the day. This is the Mahur Saddle Tunnel and it is pitch black inside and just like a spell in hell - interminable. I fight the urge to cling to Bharat for comfort and only exhale when we at last emerge into sunlit Mahur Yard where a double-headed POL rake is waiting for us. Mahur itself is a biggish village or a smallish town (depending on where you come from) so its platform is a covered one and the train stops longer than 2 minutes for everyone to pick up a cup of tea The entire station is bathed in a golden hue from the setting sun and as if this isn't pretty enough, it begins to rain as well.
When the drizzle increases in intensity it's time to come down from the roof but as we turn around to face the ladder we freeze and reach for the cameras again. It's the most beautiful, perfectly formed rainbow I've ever seen in my life and what's more there is another one just behind it. And to top it all I can see where it ends - slap in the middle of Mahur town. The golden hued Mahur is a sublime hint that the best things in life can sometimes be behind you!
The rain stops just like it started, without a hint of warning and so we remain on the rooftop. The Mahur Ridge is the watershed between the eponymous river and the Diyung River, which feeds on the runoff from the Haflong Ridge. The Diyung begins in the high hills to the east of the line and joins us just south of the Mahur Ridge; still little more than a stream and giving no hint of the difficulty it gave to the pioneer engineers further up the line.
As we approach the main body of the Barail Range, there is a subtle change in the vegetation. The heavy trees and impenetrable undergrowth give way to what looks like clumps of cane from a distance. At a few places the cane has been cleared using the practice of "jhum" or slash and burn and we wonder what the farmers plan to grow on those steep slopes.
The sun goes down before we reach Migrendisa, the last station before our destination Lower Haflong. It’s ironic that we are well east of Bangladesh but half a time zone behind it! At Migrendisa the starter remains obstinately in the horizontal and I know that we are going to have to wait for a crossing. This long wait at the last mile is another peculiarity of NFR and I have suffered often, mostly on the approach to Guwahati. Even if the passengers can go to hell, what about the crew who have already exceeded their working hours by a fair margin? So we endure two crossings at Migrendisa, a goods train followed by the Down Barak Valley Express, which must have been cooling its heels at Lower Haflong for a long time.
Not long after Migrendisa, the Haflong ridge swims into view with the eponymous town arrayed along the top of it. Subijit and Sandeep who have faithfully stayed with us on the roof point out the various landmarks including the Circuit House where we are booked for the night.
Finally we come to one of the storied features of the line, something that had eluded me in the darkness on my last visit - the Diyung Viaduct. Even today it is too dark to capture on film but I know I'll be back the next morning. It's indeed a lovely bridge but not as imposing as one has been led to believe by NFR's publicity pamphlets.
Crossing high over the Diyung on stone and steel piers, the viaduct curves to the right and immediately enters a tunnel, the last before Lower Haflong. The viaduct will not become part of BG because at this point the latter will take on an entirely new alignment and blast through the Haflong Ridge instead of respectfully going around it like the MG does. There is talk of preserving the viaduct and a portion of the old line from Jatinga as a scenic and historical railway, but that's just talk.
Our Driver suddenly advances the notches as soon as as the tunnel is passed, as if in frustration at being kept from being relieved for so long. The YDM 4 growls enthusiastically in response and soon we are rocketing along at a heart thumping and nerve jangling 45 kph. While Samit who is safely ensconced within the coach hardly notices the difference, we who are still topside are hanging on for dear life as the train sways dramatically from side to side. To our left is the sheer cliff face of the Haflong Massif and to the right a precipitous drop into the Diyung valley, over which our coach seems to teeter rather purposefully at every left hand curve. Our 20 kph sangfroid has been whisked away by the diesel exhaust and we sit there in terrified silence, praying for the station to come.
We exhale in relief as we spot the MACL Outer and the train slows down for the loop, but the scary stuff isn’t over yet. The platform line has an overhead watering system and the pipes jut out across the top of the coaches. Luckily for me they are on Bharat's side and he has to perform several nifty evasive maneuvers before the train rolls to a stop. It's taken us almost 11 hours to complete the 102 km from Lumding and about 6 hours since we stopped at Daotuhaja just 29 km away. There is a downside to such extravagance as I discover a few days later in Guwahati when I meet a pretty girl from Haflong.
"So I hear you've just been to Haflong, did you like it?"
"Yes of course, lovely town! Very underrated!" (Having seen just the railway station, the circuit house and empty streets)
"Oh, then you must have really liked the lake area."
"Err, what lake?"
End of conversation, end of story