Fan following (I take the liberty!) wanted something original. So here it is. Wonder if this is becoming a feature in life, but Indian Railways and Diwali seem to be getting rather correlated for me. So here I was again this Diwali spending a lot of my time in the company of Indian Railways.
It's been a while since I visited Vaishno Devi. And with few people in North India moving out of home during Diwali, Diwali is the least crowded time (and therefore the best, atleast for me) to go pay homage to the diety. So, while folks planned a trip overseas, I decided to back-pack to Vaishno Devi. With a week long vacation, I added Amritsar to the itinerary as well. Never visited Punjab or Amritsar and had this long standing desire to go visit Wagah, Golden Temple and Jallian Wallah Baug, apart from traveling across the green Punjab.
Saturday, 25-Oct, 10pm: One of my critical production servers crashed and another critical telecom link was upset by a provider. Spent till about 3am trying to figure out an action plan and how I would carry on with my trip on Sunday afternoon.
Sunday, 26-Oct, 1pm: Server is just about coming up. A well wisher and a friend helped get the telecom administrative issues in place. The train is at 13:50 hrs and the final berthing chart for my train to Jammu (Vaishno Devi) just got published. My ticket is still wait-listed. I raise my hands, shrug my shoulders a bit and think, well the Goddess had probably not ordained for my visit. 13:15hrs, get a call from Railways, asking me why I am not at the station!! I tell them my ticket is waitlisted, well a friend of mom's helped me get a confirmed berth for a 24 hour journey from a station 3 hours into the journey. I quickly, hand-over the charge to my team and rush for the Railway Station.
4pm: The team carries on with the remainder work; self on telephone helping them as and where they get stuck. Have hopped on to a top-berth not occupied by anyone, atleast till I get my confirmed seat.
10pm: The team finally leaves office getting most of the things for our server in order (Qudos to them, working on a Sunday, that too on a festival weekend, ensuring the service goes up!). I have my confirmed berth and am just through with dinner. Got a little more configuration to do; will do that early am.
Monday, 27-Oct: Get up in the morning, do some configuration and cross-checks. The train is running per schedule and I should be at Jammu by 2pm. A 2-hour drive to Katra and then the ascent to the Goddess' Shrine. Well, that wasn't ordained to be. About 3 hours before Jammu, the Railways' Operations had different thoughts. The train was at an unscheduled hault for about an hour. And it continued doing so every half-hour thereafter. A part of it attributed to the single-line up and down rail track between Chakki Bank and Jammu (a distance of about 110km). Finally, the train reaches Jammu at 7pm! Couldn't do much so spent time helping my team with some configurations and admiring the country-side. North India during winters is beautiful. The Ravi is absolutely dry; a new dam seems to have been built upstream.
One thing I realise as soon as I enter J&K is that the Government does not allow data services through mobile operators in Jammu & Kashmir, so no emails, no hand-held, no data card on laptop. Miss it, worried about what might happen to the world, but think that its probably just an addiction and have an able team to handle any crisis.
Catch a bus that makes me reach Katra (base-camp) at around 10pm. The bus itself was fun, but not as much fun as the train. I was in a crowded local bus, sitting on a wooden board shared with two more people right behind the driver. If the driver turned hard, his elbow would hurt my nose.
A more or less uneventful journey except for the delay part of things. Its too late to start the 12.5km uphill climb to the shrine, so I spend the night at Katra, at the Shrine Board rest-house, enjoy delicious Rajma-Chawal of Jammu and hit the sack by midnight. I'll start with the climb tomorrow.
Tuesday, 28-Oct, 12noon: All links are up, repaired servers working well, everything confirmed fine on the work front and am at peace. It's Diwali day!! Happy Diwali. I start the climb. Well, go through security frisking and I am told I cannot haul my laptop up. So leave that at a private cloak-room. Worried whether I would get to see it when I returned. But nonetheless, Jai Mata Di and there I go.
3pm: Cold shower under water flowing from the Ghats at Vaishno Devi Bhawan.
6pm: Bhairon Baba
8:30pm: Back (after about a 30km hike) and reunited with the laptop.
10pm: Legs soaked in warm water.
Wednesday, 29-Oct, 9am: Get up to aching muscles. Its almost as if with each step I feel that the muscles will snap. Anyway, go to the bus station to get a bus to Amritsar. There is a bus leaving in a couple of hours. Enough time to get a good oil massage in the sun and a shower. Probably amongst the best massages I've ever got. Either the masseuse (ok, the local maalish waala) was really good or it was the aching muscles. But nonetheless, felt much better after that.
11:30 am: The bus to Amritsar's cancelled. Only 4 passengers. Next bus leaves at 1.30pm.
12noon: Don't think its worth waiting for the next bus and not even sure if that would go too!! So I take a local bus to Jammu and plan catching the 2.30pm train from there to Amritsar. Plan reaching by 7.30pm.
2pm: Finally reach Jammu Station and the train is five hours late. Try finding out alternatives; find out at the Enquiry Counter, there is a train leaving for a mid-way station (Chakki Bank) in two minutes; I need to change trains from there.
In all the rush of catching the train I forgot that it was only last evening that I had completed a 30km hike. My knees suddenly reminded me that they were still made of rubber and would take time to become bones again. Nonetheless, jump into the train that is already leaving the platform without a ticket. We'll handle that when the TTE comes around. I go and plonk myself on a second class seat, legs extended. No way am I going to change the position of my legs. Its way too much effort.
4.30pm: Reach Chakki Bank (a part of Pathankot) and am told that I need to rush to Pathankot main station for the 17.25 local train to Amritsar (a distance of 100km).
I purchase a general ticket and find a window seat in the train, its fairly crowded owing to people visiting relatives for the festival. Now starts, what I would say as the best part of my whole trip. A 3 hour train journey, through lush the fields of Punjab, hauled by a diesel loco (me in the coach right behind the loco) on a winter evening. A thin layer of mist forming right at the tree-line, yellow and green fields and in the company of vociferous yet gentle Punjabis. Those 3 hours were spent relaxing, looking at stations go by and without any worry about the time I would reach Amritsar.
I was as it is about 12 hours behind schedule and have the train to Baroda the next morning at 8am. Out of Wagah Border, Golden Temple and Jallianwala Baug, I would be missing out on Wagah Border, but whatever, I was not forcing the pace and enjoying the moment.
I finally reach Amritsar at 8.30pm; find a hotel to stay the night (nothing at all to write home about the hotel except that it was about 50m from the Golden Temple) and go immediately to visit the Temple. I enter the gates of the temple, and what beholds me is by far the most majestic, imposing, serene and beautiful structure I have ever seen. The Golden Temple, surrounded by the Amrit Sarovar (holy moat). Stand agape with just taking in the aura and the beauty of the place. The other thing I observed was the gentleness with which each person you spoke interacted with you. Care, selfless service, and humility; the devotees added to the serenity of the place. Have the langar at the Temple and then back to observing the place. Its about midnight. I make it a point to return to the temple before dawn to see the place again.
Thursday, 30-Oct, 1am: Lights off. A day well spent.
Get up at 5.45am, take a quick shower and head off to the temple, its still dark (pitch dark, right before the sunrise) and the Temple is still more beautiful. Sit there, soak in the aura of the place and then visit the sanctum sanctorum of the Temple. It is a sight to believe. My vocabulary does not do justice to the place. No pandas or anyone to bother you. Everyone busy in devotion and politely answer any queries one might have. By the time I leave, its sunlight and the Temple is shimmering golden!!
I next visit the Jallianwala Baug, 34 foot steps from my hotel. Entering the place, seeing the narrow entrance from where General Dyer came in with his goons (just about two people can enter this entrance side-by-side, the well where people jumped in and bullet marks on the walls) made me get goosebumps. What the martyrs paid for our freedom and how we misuse it today in the name of religion, caste, regions, corruption...and 'Tinku love Pinky' engraved on the walls of the well. Shameful.
Anyway, its about 7.30am, I check out from the hotel, rush to the station for the 8.15 train to Baroda. Have just about enough time to feed myself to the famed Amritsari Alu Parathas at a dhaba next to the station (we'll not speak of hygiene here).
8.15am: Get back into the train for a 24 hour journey back to Baroda.
8pm: Publishing the blog. See, better than photos? :-)
Jai Mata Di.