So, we finally started the 2100-km long train journey to Varanasi. Fifteen minutes after the train left Tirupati, it stopped for 20 minutes at Renigunta Junction. We tucked into our lunch and dozed off while reading the magazines bought at Tirupati railway station.
We reached Vijayawada around 9.30 PM. Our relatives in Vijayawada came to the station with what else...but lots of food for our dinner :-) There seem to be some restaurants in Vijayawada that specialize in packing railway dinners. Very neatly done!
The long train journey was a good time to catch up with the rest of the family- dig out childhood memories, discuss the Indian IT and business scenario, and of course debate about films, politics and so on. The presence of some Kerala Catholic nuns in our compartment, made us talk about the convent schools we attended during the 1980's. The kids - Anagha (8) and Lasya (2.5) had a whale of a time too.
My brother Ramana (who had 'miraculously' recovered fully from the throat infection by now..the power of persuasion or the joy of travel?) and I discovered that we both have the habit of getting down at every station, and walk or look around, till the train whistles and starts to move. Imagine, we both in our mid-30’s, and we had never traveled together on a long train journey! After we crossed teenage, we never lived in the same town or city, and only met for a few days, every 3 months or so, at Kadapa. As I noticed this commonality between us, I wondered as to what other discoveries this journey has in store.
Up early in the morning (we crossed Balharshah some time around 5.30 AM and I could not sleep after that), I waited till we crossed Sevagram (the train was running late by almost 60 min) at 8 AM, before I headed to the pantry. We had brought a thermos flask with us – the idea was to get hot water from the pantry, mix some milk powder and Boost, and give it to Lasya. My wife did not trust the milk sold on the trains. Sankar came with me to the pantry – and while one of the attendants cheerfully boiled the water for us, we ordered breakfast for the entire group, and made small talk with the cooks. A malayalee passenger came with two big flasks and got one of the pantry attendants make coffee-to-order. The maintenance of the toilets on Indian trains has a lot of scope for improvement (Lallu ji, are you listening?), but the pantries are run well, I can say from first-hand experience. The attendants are generally friendly and efficient, and if you make the effort to walk to the pantry and request the cooks, they some times make special dishes for you. Of course, you may or may not enjoy the taste, but compared to what we get on our flights, it is many times better.
After Nagpur, the train stopped at fewer stations, and long stretches of time passed before we reached any major junction. By the time we got to Itarsi, it was almost 3.30 PM, 90 minutes behind schedule.
From Itarsi, all trains from the South going towards Delhi go up North. And trains going towards Kolkata or Patna take a diversion to the East, towards Jabalpur junction. It was dusk when we crossed Jabalpur. Throughout the afternoon, I was glued to the window, watching some very lovely forested areas pass by. Unfortunately, before I could snap a photo of a particuarly beautiful stretch, it would pass by and hills would cover the view of valleys and the streams.
Here on, our train started waiting for signals every now and then, and each time, we waited for 15-20 minutes for the line clear signal. Dinner was served between Katni and Maihar stations, and at Satna, I had one last cup of tea, before switching off the lights, and going to bed. We were all tired after 1.5 days on the train, and could not wait to get to Varanasi.
Our train reached Allahabad Junction fully 2 hours late and was further delayed there for some unknown reason. It was very cold and we were all wrapped up when we got down the train at Varanasi junction, at 7 AM.
We were all very excited, and quickly unloaded the luggage and ourselves. The porters offered to take the luggage and guide us to the auto/taxi stand for Rs.200. A bargain really. It was quite simple to deal with the auto-walas and hire 4 autos for Rs.100 each to get to Andhra Ashram – the area where we booked our accommodation. For such a busy tourist destination, the rates for porters and auto/taxi transport in Varanasi are on the cheaper side. As we would realize in the next few days, North India is not only cheaper on the wallet, it is also poorer compared to the South. May be it is cheaper (especially manual labor) because it is poorer. More on this, and about our days in and around Kasi in the next post.