Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Train trip to Landour Mussoorie

There are many in blogland who are aficionados of train trips...and there are plenty writers on the topic. I have had several encouraging reactions to this particular one so have flung it in webland for whoever to enjoy. If you have...I would love to hear about yours..or whatever.

The trip to Landour began from the porch of the mission house at the Bulsar (Valsad) Church of the Brethren hospital. It would be around 8:00 pm on an early March evening when the horse drawn "Victorias" came for the Woodstock party. By now it was dark enough for them to have their running lights fueled by kerosene and wicks lit. The front of the lamp on each side of the carriage was clear glass and the dim light was focused by a crude lens behind the wick. The backside usually had a small round red lens about the size of a quarter to indicate the rear. A procession of these at night could be quite an impressive sight. Soon we would arrive at the huge Bulsar train station. It would be around 8:30 pm. My stomach churned from excitement because I knew that a huge adventure lay ahead.

The train we would be boarding was the famous "Frontier Mail". It was the fabled express going from Bombay to Delhi and then to Amritsar on the frontier between India and Afghanistan. It was an apparition that swirled out of the mysterious Indian night and glided ever so majestically into the station. It glistened and glowed as it rumbled heavily into the station. Great swirls of steam and smoke writhed around this apparition. What fired my young boy’s imagination was that "frontier". I had been to Bombay and understood what a large city was. But I had never been to that "frontier" so it was always swathed in darkest melodrama, a place where steely eyed Pathans from Afghanistan mingled uneasily with the local tribesmen of the "north".

The porters soon had us in our compartment and after paying them we had time to orient ourselves to our surroundings. There were two or more benches that were padded with a dark green plastic like cushion. Overhead would be several electric lights as well as a fan or two. Over the benches was a berth that could be lowered to a horizontal position to make a bed. It was on these benches and berths that the bed rolls would later be deployed. In every available nook and cranny would be our trunks, bags, and thermoses. At one end of the compartment would be the latrine and sink.

After what seemed an interminable wait the whistle would blow. One would feel a very slight movement and slowly the station platform would slide past to the rhythmic staccato coming from the smokestack of the powerful black steam engine somewhere out in front. Soon the platform would drop away and shortly after the huge switching tower that controlled a vast complex of switch points and lights in the huge rail yard. The Bulsar rail yard was vast. We would roll past numerous freight trains in the making. Often there would be a hissing sound that crescendoed as our train passed another steam engine. Or the lights from the windows of a local train would stream by and for a split second one would see some human tableau frozen forever in memory One by one the rails of the huge yard merged as the Mail gathered momentum. The lights of the city would be less numerous and the last siding would merge into the two sets of tracks and the train would speed into the velvet night.

A trip on the "mail" was even more exciting than flying. For a boy it was the sensation of hurtling through space and time. Even though it was dark outside there were interesting events to savor. At the approach of some little wayside station, a siding or two would whip out, and then in a flash the station with its platform would pass like a bullet. Next might follow a crossing gate, where an oxcart or tonga might be waiting, and then would follow the sidings back into the main line and a semaphore. If there were a moon, one could see the silhouettes of palm trees and the shapes of the conical thatched huts of nearby villages. All night we would travel over the plains of western India. There would be brief stops at the largest cities: Surat, with its huge electric clocks on the station platform, Broach, after crossing on a long bridge over the wide Narabada river, and then the great city of Baroda around two or three in the morning. By that time the need for sleep would overcome the curiosity about the next sight and one would drift off lulled by the regular beat of the wheels as they measured off ten thousands of rails.

Sleep was fitful, often being interrupted by the irregular rhythm experienced when the wheels crossed over siding switches, or by the sudden, explosive sound as trains passed in the night. Sometimes one was wakened by the lack of motion and the distant sound of voices when the Mail stopped at some early predawn station. Someone would rise to go to the bathroom.

Dawn crept slowly over the world. It became apparent that we had lost the other pair of rails. The line now moved toward Delhi all alone. It was a different geography here, drier and somehow mysterious and remote. The land was stark. Gone were the friendly trees and the sight of agriculture as it existed on the plains. Breakfast arrived at Ratlam. While engines changed and the train was inspected for hot boxes, an army of porters from the dining service brought breakfast A breakfast on the "mail" was a unique experience. One ate from a tray on one’s knee. It consisted of scrambled eggs, toast, and marmalade, accompanied by hot tea. Each metal plate had its own covering. How all this was kept warm and carried down from the galley to individual passengers was a mystery. But it was accomplished with efficiency.

After a thirty minute wait the conductor would blow his whistle and the great machine at the head would begin to move the train imperceptively at first and then with staccato barks at the smokestack accelerate through the rail yards of Ratlam into the bright and already warm day. The scenery out the window had changed through the night from coastal plain agrarian to near desert. Gone were the palm trees that spoke of moisture and life. In their stead a bleak landcape of pink sand and flat baked rocks streamed by. Life beneath the pitiless sun would be difficult here for anything. Still, there would be instances of small towns, serviced by the local trains, but they were greater distances apart. As the Mail sped along one would be aware of a siding suddenly whipping out from the main tracks, a semaphore tower would flash by and then shortly a station and its platform would appear for an instant and be gone.

Near midday the train wound its way through some small mountains. The great engine struggled to pull the long train around curving cuts in the stone. We often stuck our heads out the window and could smell the acrid smoke and steam odors mixed with a unique smell that comes from stone being crushed. It was either that of sand being applied for traction or small granite gravels falling from the walls of the cut. Subsequent trips along this same route always produced the same odors at the same places.

There is a memory of getting off the train, perhaps at Kotah Junction, and walking to the dining car for lunch. Of being served hotly curried meals, by immaculately uniformed waiters as the train ran toward Delhi, of talking with the conductor about trains and the history of this one. watching other families and groups as they were served and trying to understand what they might be talking about. Then we would return to our coach and the afternoon would set in. Imperceptibly the scenery became more hospitable. Villages became more numerous. Several large rivers would be crossed. At one late afternoon stop, while tea was being enjoyed one could see peacocks showing off their plumage just beyond the station environs. A sort of weariness crept in among one’s bones.

Large cities don’t have sharp boundaries. They are a well defined nucleus with a vast circle of satellite towns and villages so one doesn’t arrive at Delhi suddenly. The stations the train whizzes by are more frequent. There is less open space. Gasoline propelled vehicles instead of ox carts are at the crossings. The number of wires on the railway telegraph posts now number 15-20 instead of 4-5. But Delhi is still an hour away. The afternoon sun drops slowly toward distant roof tops. The population is returning from out of the fields, from off the rivers, from their businesses to whatever passes for home. A woman and her daughters will be preparing the evening meal over a rough inside stove. The little kitchen will be filling with smoke which will cause the eyes to burn. It will be unbearably hot to Westerners, but the Indians will have stripped down to the barest essentials and so will have a supper of hot chapatis and rice and curry. Drinking hot tea will bring on a sweat which will help them cool down. The aroma in such a hovel is a rich blend of cow dung patty smoke, tobacco smoke, curried cooked food, human body odors, and the omnipresent incense. It is essential India.

The Mail slows down and stops at a block semaphore, there is a train ahead that needs to arrive at a siding. A short whistle sounds and we begin moving. A little further and the train is crossing over the Howrah river on a mammoth bridge. There is the whooom-whoom-whoom sound as giant steel girders reflect back the sound of the rolling bogeys. Then we are in the sprawling yards of the New Delhi complex. A few minutes later the Mail glides into the huge station and slowly comes to a halt. It is evening.

A vast throng of humanity is moving along the station platform: coolies waiting to carry trunks, bed rolls, and other luggage; passengers about to board the train, all sorts of station entrepreneurs pushing little carts of hot tea and pastries, toys, jewlery, cold drinks, newspapers, holy men (sadhus) in their saffron robes, beggars, and people who have come just to watch and observe. Thirty minutes pass and the activity slows down on the platform beside the train. More trains come in and leave on other platforms causing the same flurry of activity. Hanging from the ceilings the electric fans keep the hot air moving, affording all a brief respite from the stifling heat. The conductor blows his whistle, the engine answers with its own and the Mail moves out into the yards on the other end of the station. As the engine accelerates there is no feeling of urgency, just a leisurely canter so to speak. In ten minutes or less the Frontier Mail is pulling into Delhi proper. Here the Woodstock party will disembark. Our time on this train is over. Luggage is stacked on rolling wagons and transferred to another platform. We will eat supper upstairs in the dining room that overlooks the courtyard of a huge mosque. Then we will return to the platform and wait.

Sometime around 9:00 PM a train trimmed in green arrives. The locomotive is not the bullet nosed type pulling the express Mail but rather the common boxy stream engine pulling the slower trains. Luggage is loaded and stowed. One inhales the odors of the different space and tries to intuit the experiences that may have occurred in it. This night is blur of fitful sleep interrupted every ten or fifteen minutes as the train pulls into a local station. The click pattern from the rails has a different rhythm as the bogeys have one less pair of wheels at each end. It is more abrupt and slower than the smooth triplicate staccato of the Mail’s. The view into the night is one of dark mystery as the tracks pass through small hills and forested glens The aroma of a thousand wood fires hangs in the air which now begins to have a tinge of cool.

The train moves northward and gains slight altitude. The plains of north India are quite different from those of west coast Gujarat. West coast is open and decorated by tall palm trees. On a moonlight night one might be able to see several miles distant. North India is more forested and hilly and distant vistas are rare. So passes the night.

Dawn inches into the night sky. For miles the track has wound through small hills and has kept the Siwalik mountains at bay. Now they are clearly visible on the far horizon and the train is approaching their flanks. Soon we are coasting into the station at Haridwar. For Hindus this is a high holy city where the Ganges flows out of the Himalayas into the plains. Many great festivals are observed here. It is a great place to be born or to die. For those of us going to Woodstock it was the harbinger of things to come. Shortly after leaving the station the train tunnels into bowels of the Siwaliks and emerged into the broad valley between them and the Himalayas. The sun would be up and one could see the front ranges of the world’s greatest mountain chain. Here they would be six to eight thousand feet high, towering over the craggy Siwalik hills. At least once, especially in the waning winter months a very distant snow covered peak might appear in a flash as the view up a mountain pass allowed it. The air was fresher here and chillier.

Ahead was Dehra Dun. The green train would give up its struggle to conquer the grade. The engineer let up on the throttle and let gravity assist him in bringing his line of passenger cars into the tracks beside the platforms. A slight application of squeeking brakes and the train was still. Weary upper class passengers stumbled through the swinging doors of the station dining room. Here a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and hot cups of Earl Grey tea were gratefully wolfed down. If one hadn’t prepared for north Indian brisk winter morning air it could be a miserable few hours.

After breakfast the party boarded buses for the drive up to Mussoorie. The road moved through the city itself and circled playfully about the savannah like vegetation of near tropics. And then the ascent shortly began in earnest. One heard it in the straining duet of the quavering transmission as old motor struggled to make rear wheels turn. One felt it in the cant of the vehicle as it wound around yet another hairpin curve. One was aware of it through the wall of granite on one side and the steep drop off on the other. A young child inhales all these through his senses and it remains with him forever.

Minute by minute the view became more alpine. Dehra Dun was dropping away. The first evergreens and deodars would begin to appear. The thick fetid air of the plains was slowly being replaced by light cold mountain air, so silvery and bright you hardly were aware of the respiration process at all. The engineering of such roads should always arouse curiosity and wonder in those who use them. Who designed the route? How long was there a human habitation at Mussoorie before Westerners discovered it? What machinery and human effort was required to build a macadamized road up seven thousand feet of solid rock before World War II. What structural sciences were required to resist the eroding effects of water and rock falls, especially after winter thaw and monsoon rains? Why was remote Mussoorie selected by the British military for such attention? The bus might round a sharp curve only to be confronted by an army of coolies repairing the road damaged by a landslide.

The terminus of the road was at Kin Craig. There we met the Himalayas face to face. Those who were physically able walked the remaining several miles to Woodstock school or to cottages and dwelling places in the environs. My first trip up was in a "dandi", a sling carried by four coolies. It was a raw cold day. The road wound up through the cosmopolitan town of Mussoorie. An interesting mix of movie theater, restaurants, hotels, shops and private dwellings. A hill town that had electricity and phones! It took several hours to reach Woodstock School and at least another hour to ascend to Sisters bazaar near the crest. From Sisters bazaar it was a half mile walk up several switchbacks past Prospect Lodge and finally to the top at Prospect Point. This dwelling owned by the Church of the Brethren would be our dwelling place each year for several months. We had arrived.

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