Riding The Indian Railway

Some people travel to see what’s there. Others are looking for something. In India, I want to find bustling train stations; long stretches of track curling into wherever; hundreds of well-worked carriages rocking gently through the night, weaving fragments of a thousand human stories together as they plunge through the cities and across the plains – all of which just goes to show you how undemanding I can be, really, given the massive extent and popularity of the Indian Rail network. The trains go all over the place, and in my mind, no trip to India is complete without a journey down one of those beckoning tracks.

On this occasion, however, timing stands in our way: we have two days’ worth of wedding events, smack in the middle of our week. Hah… In the end, the best proposal I could come up with involved two overnight journeys in a row (out and back), with slightly less than one day of sightseeing at the far end. According to my husband, it takes a “special” kind of person to view that as a good suggestion, but luckily we have two such people right here in our family, one of which, obviously, is me, and the other of which is not my husband, who is volunteering to stay behind in Bangalore with our daughter, who is too young to express much of an opinion either way (but I’m working on her).

P and I, on the other hand, are in the process of reacquainting ourselves with Seat61, brushing off the old Cleartrip password, and throwing together an ill-advised mother-son itinerary to the middle of gosh-knows-where. I thought it might be good to choose a destination smartish, however, since trains in India – especially overnight ones and particularly the more luxurious classes – tend to book up fast. This, even though riding the waitlist holds its own, unique thrills, and is almost as much a part of the experience as chai on the platform or getting hassled by porters. At least it would be a chance to get my stats up on the India Rail Info PNR predictions forum.

Like the intrepid explorers we are, we decided to do most of our planning whilst using our Jewel Cards (more families in Singapore should know about the Jewel Card) to ride the cable car on a more or less continuous loop around “Mount” Faber and Sentosa. This worked, because P loves the cable car, and I have to bury my head in my iPad and google like crazy to avoid freaking out about it.

I'm much better with trains, and google.

I’m much better with trains, and google.

I quickly, if regretfully, dismissed the Biligiriranga Hills on account of them being too – wait a minute, follow my logic now – too close to Bangalore. You see, if a destination is too close, it makes the journey there unsuitable for an overnight haul, which means a day haul, which is less than inviting when you have to entertain a rambunctious five-year-old in his seat, plus it limits your sightseeing time as you don’t get to feed those two birds (travelling/sleeping) from the same feeder, as it were. In any case, day travel is just less special. Of course, if I was willing to tackle the route by motor bike I could follow Sudarshan’s example, but then it wouldn’t be a train trip.

The Girl Next Door got me thinking about Vembanad Lake. It’s a 14hr trip if we depart about 9pm on a Wednesday, getting into the nearest train station (Kottayam) just before lunchtime the next day. But then we’d have to hit the rails again by 4:30pm – barely enough time for food and bearings, let alone a trip through the backwaters or to the bird sanctuary.ย  Besides, a big draw for me is the houseboats, and they require at least an overnight stay. One for another time, perhaps.

For a fleeting moment I thought Ooty would make the perfect destination. Aparna at Life As A Mom had a charming description of their family vacation, including two words which stood out to me: toy train. It’s theoretically possible. If we get ourselves from Bangalore to Chennai by 9pm on the first day (doable), we can change on to the Nilagiri Express, which arrives at Metupalaiyam Station with an hour or so to spare before we need to board the enormously popular Nilagiri Mountain Railway – with pre-confirmed tickets, or we’d have no hope. We would then spend five to six hours riding up the mountain, two or three wandering around at the top, and another few hours edging our way back down, before jumping back on the Nilagiri Express in the opposite direction. We’d have Friday to wend our way back to Banglore, by yet another train, arriving just in time for the festivities to begin. Bear in mind that this whole charade starts with an international flight from Singapore to Bangalore on the very first morning. It might be a suitable sort of itinerary if I was a Victorian-era gentleman of somewhat mysterious means acting on a wager made one afternoon at the Reform Club, but (as you may have guessed) I am not.

Then I stumbled across these posts on Mangalore by Prasad at Inception – in particular the one on St Mary’s Islands. Udapi is a 14-hour overnight ride, which gets in before lunch time on the day after departure. The station is within ten or eleven kilometers (thirty minutes) of Malpe Beach, from where a thirty-minute (plus waiting-for-enough-passengers time) boat ride will take you to see the unusual volcanic rock formations on St Mary’s Island (did somone say geo-tourism? to a five-year-old?) or you can forgo the extra leg and just wander up and down Malpe Beach (did someone tell the five-year-old beach?). Jaya Sugathan at My Tapestry Of Musings reveals that visits to nearby temples and lighthouses (lighthouses!) are also possible – and we should have a decent chunk of time to pick at least one of those options before we have to head back the way we came.

So at present, Udupi is our front-running option. That is, unless further investigation of the Bangalore weekend getaway suggestions put forward at NJoy Every Moment reveals something more suitable. Or unless I’m swayed by your invaluable advice in the comments (*cough* hint).