Boarded the train no 22461, Shri Shakti Express, a fully air-conditioned train from New Delhi to Katra which commenced the journey at 5.30 pm. The reservation was initially in RAC which got confirmed later. However, the berths allotted defied all established norms and claims by the Railways. We were allotted two side upper berths. Railways claim to allot lower berths to the woman above 45 years of age. My wife is 57 and I am 3 weeks short of 60 as on date. Don’t know how the berths are allocated.
As the coach slowly filled in, many a passenger faced the same situation. Families are separated just not by widely allocated berths but also to separate and distant coaches. We were in coach B9, berth nos. 48 and 56, both side upper berths. The berth no 55 was allotted to a family whose all other members were in coach B5.
Similar were the allotments with many such passengers. The passengers were trying to accommodate one another which was not possible in all cases. There were kids with mothers who needed the lower berths. For us, it was difficult to climb the uppermost berths. So it was really difficult to accommodate every request. We stayed put at our berths since the alternate proposals were not beneficial.
Those who could accommodate, especially the lone passengers, were praiseworthy. They helped families to travel together sacrificing there own comfortable berths. I saw a couple of such examples.
It is beyond my comprehension as to how the berths were allocated. If it is computer driven, there is a serious flaw in logic built in the software. If it is manual, then God is the only saviour. When I had booked the tickets, I was allocated RAC 80 and RAC 81. Obviously, there was heavy booking and the railways must have added extra coach/s. If that is the case, and I am sure about that, such haphazard allotments cannot take place without a certain malfunction either in the computerized system or in the manual intervention. I discard the manual intervention since the entire railway reservation system is computerized since so many years. Therefore the system logic needs a relook. So many people can not be inconvenienced due to some stupid logic. The railways must look into the problem. I will definitely lodge a complaint with the authorities.
There were kids galore in the coach of all ages right from infancy to teenage. Naturally, there was lots of noise. I was thinking about my younger daughter Tanu who is allergic to small kids. Once, on her flight to London, she could not sleep for entire flight as there were a number of kids around her seat.
The family opposite to our side berths was quite noisy and with high gastronomic tendencies. Every 15 minutes, they were munching something since the boarding. Some people are quite hungry once they board the train. From my childhood days, I have seen people devour as if with the end of the journey the world will come to an end.
Bhavani could watch her favourite serials in her iPhone using the Tata sky app. I used the opportunity to write this blog. Right now I will stop for dinner as I am feeling hungry more because of various aromas invading my nostrils from all sides.
Dinner is over. Bhavani had the puri subzi packed at home and that came very handy. Delicious and homely.
The opposite co-passengers (4 adults and 5 kids including an infant) are busy eating something or other since they boarded the train. Now they are having dinner. They have both home cooked food as well as buying from the sundry vendors. Whatever the vendors brought they bought. Insatiable appetite! In less than 3 hours they had homemade snacks and dinner plus assorted food items and beverages from the mobile vendors. No aspersions, simply astonishing.
In our next coupe another family of 8 members, 5 adults and 3 teenagers, were busy in various games and discussion. They were all very vocal and never really bothered about the noise they were creating. Their eating habits were disciplined. However, they continued hot debate unmindful of the irritation it caused to fellow passengers.
A college-going girl among the party had some mythological subject in her course. She debated and questioned the wisdom of mythological heroes like Rama and Krishna. Her parents could not really match her in her vociferous (however, half-baked knowledge backed) arguments. She questioned the wisdom behind destiny, Karma, rebirth, incarnation etc. I liked her inquiries and the eagerness to be responded logically.
We occupied our respective berths. Bhavani could manage to climb with great difficulty. I also climbed my berth but could not go for immediate sleep as the family opposite me continued their discussion. I am waiting. The girl seemed to be all knowledgeable and not amenable to any logic.
The sleep last night was quite disturbed. Anyway, the side upper berths are least comfortable. The train stopped at some stations for quite a long duration. I think 12 hours for 654 km distance for a superfast train having just about 5-6 stoppages is a stretched time. The train can easily cover the distance in less than 10 hours. The departure and arrival timings are to be rescheduled.
The train arrived before scheduled time at 5 am. There was a slight chill in the air. We took an auto and reached our hotel The Grand Sharan less than a km away from the station.
We started the trek at about 8.15 am from the new route inaugurated in May this year. The route is about 7 km, called Tarakote Marg and wonderfully constructed. It is fully shaded, wide and very well paved. No ponies are allowed on this route. However, vans and tractors were seen plying laden with various materials.
The best part of this stretch is the horticulture work. There was a constant fragrance of assorted flowers on the entire stretch. The air was so pure that I remarked that one should cover this distance every month to cleanse one’s lungs and arteries with pure oxygen. Since the part of the total trek is newly constructed, there was less crowd which started swelling once the road merged with the existing route.
We reached in 5 and half hours. The ‘darshan’ was smooth as the crowd was not great. The auspicious days will start on 10th October and then the crowd will be very heavy.
While returning we noticed a few things:
1. The ‘piththus’ (the porters), who carry the luggage and small children, have improvised their work by introducing prams. They no longer carry the load on their backs.
2. There were no ‘langurs’ in the Bhairon Ghat area resulting in a proliferation of monkeys. The monkeys also have improved their drinking skills as I saw a monkey drinking coffee directly from the paper cup (check my Instagram account for the photo) in the same way we humans do. Their population has also increased considerably as we observed while trekking down.
3. There is continuous development work on the old trekking route where ponies are allowed but with less focus or urgency. Large stretches are not covered overhead and with poor lighting, the stretches are dangerous as trekking is allowed 24/7.
4. Though the battery-powered vans are allowed only for invalid and old/sick people, pilgrims of all ages seen using the facility and that’s why there was a long queue for booking.
5. The helicopter facility has caught up. Two helicopters were seen flying pilgrims non-stop. In fact, the booking window at the hilltop put up a board by 2 pm announcing no further booking for the day.
6. A ropeway is under construction which when completed, would help pilgrims to go to the Bhairon temple easily. At present the trek of just 2 km is quite arduous, steep, narrow and just about 10% of the pilgrims visiting the Vaishno Devi Shrine visit this temple.
7. A unique hand controlled improvised cart was seen ferrying people down. The unique part of the cart was it’s braking system. An old tyre, dragged by the cart, is tied with a rope attached to the front axle of cart beneath the wooden body. The cart is controlled from behind with another rope. To apply the brake, one has to press the tyre with the foot. What an improvisation! What a ‘jugaad’!
Our return trek was a bit delayed since we were now tired. To and fro, the trek is about 28 km if you include the Bhairon Ghat. Though the ascent was comfortable considering the new route and our legs were fresh, the descent was tiring as we had to take the old route where the ponies carrying pilgrims, ponies carrying sundry goods and all that is allowed. For the last 5 km, we literally dragged ourselves down. A trek of 28 km on the Trikuta hills (altitude more than 6000 feet) in less than 16 hours by a couple with the combined age of 117 years should be praiseworthy.
I used to visit this hill shrine regularly starting from 1983 till the first decade of this millennia. For the last 8 to 9 years, I have not been here. There is a whole lot of improvements since then. The railways has been extended to Katra, the base camp, the new trekking route is fabulous, the chopper transport is now stabilized with an added helipad on top, Yatra slips are now issued even by hotels where you stay, new route is only for trekkers (no ponies are allowed), continuous upgrade of facilities, etc. The Katra rail station is squeaky clean and with top-class facilities even with dorm accommodation at just ₹1210 which includes breakfast, drop and pick up from Banganga, the starting point of the trek.