Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Sagararani - Kochi's own sunset "cruise"

Kochi - Kerala's own metropolis - is a city that is surrounded by waterways all around. Kochi, Cochin, Ernakulam - as you like to call it - has a beautiful seashore along it. The core city areas do not have a seashore, though - since the city is on the banks of Vembanad lake & the River Periyar. One of the first things tourists visiting the city of Kochi do, is to take a boat cruise around Vembanad Lake and River Periyar - both comes together is what is called the Shipping Channel. There are a lot of boats that take tourists on a cruise through the waterbody. In addition to these private boats, there are some government run SWTD (State Water Transport Department) transport boats, which offer cheap and quick trips across the lake/river.

Since the port is located, more or less, within the city - the ships come fairly into the river/lake, and hence there exists a lot of restriction on the operation of boats. Most of the sunset cruises offered by these boats are nothing more than two hours of slow ride through the river will the sea opening - where the boats drift a bit to let the tourists watch the sun set, and then return back to the tourist boat jetties, located along marine drive in the city. Boating is an important item on every tourist's agenda. These boats cost quite some money - and you get very less for the 90-120 minutes they take you around for.
Sagararani.. as she prepares to head to the sea!
If you are visiting Kochi - please do not look at these boats unless you are only looking at spending good money on endlessly moving over waters. Head straight to the "High Court Jetty" - there stands the sleepy office of KSINC - or Kerala Shipping & Inland Navigation Corporation (A Government of Kerala organisation). They operate a great cruise - the Sagararani. They have two identical boats - Sagararani and Sagararani-II. Both were built by the Cochin Shipyard and are officially IRS registered vessels, certified to enter the seas. Sagararani offers evening sunset cruises every day (except during monsoons) - which leaves Kochi at 1730hrs and reaches back at 1930hrs. With tickets priced at Rs. 300 (on weekdays. Its Rs. 350 for weekends and holidays), they offer a memorable two hours ride to the seas to witness the sunset sans obstructions (except clouds, of course), a light snack, services of a knowledgeable guide and lots of entertainment.
This is Sagararani-II @ KSINC Jetty near High Court, Kochi
While the Sagararanis are operated by a government organisation, there is one private operator, Classic Cruises, who operates Classic Paradise for sunset cruises. So this could be an alternative if the Sagararani isn't available. Both the boats have their own advantages and disadvantages, to be honest - and I can vouch for that since I've been on both the boats. Both the boats charge around the same rates. The private boat is newer and has better sound systems - with lots and lots of lights. The lower deck has a good disco floor in Classic Paradise. The Sagararani, on the other hand, is more family friendly and has a conference hall styled lower deck - which is good for families to rest in, in airconditioned comfort, after the sun sets.
This is Classic Paradise - the only private cruise vessel..

April 14, 2016:
Heights of Festivities! A lazy evening! I rushed from the Airport towards the city - I was at the airport with another spotter friend to spot some aircraft. I dropped my friend near the High court and I rushed towards the jetty, where my entire family was waiting for me! We were taking Sagararani again - after almost 6 years! Being a holiday, tickets were priced at Rs. 350 each - we took 5 tickets and walked into Sagararani - the older among the Sagararanis. Sagararani can seat lesser passengers than Sagararani-II. They first filled Sagararani and then Sagararani-II. Both were operating on that day. We remained in the AC hall on the lower deck till the vessel started off. We backed out of the jetty exactly at 1730hrs - the other Sagararani (II) also left at the same time.
Starting off... 
Soon after we began the sightseeing, refreshments rolled out of the pantry. The neatly dished out kit had a vegetarian samosa, a piece of tea cake and a biscuit, followed by a cup of hot tea. The refreshment tasted fresh and the quantity was sufficient. The crew on board ensured that every body on board received their share - they kept enquiring again and again to confirm this. Bins to collect the refuse was aplenty on board - this ensured that the refuse wasn't dumped into water. Soon after showing the important show-worthy regions around, the vessel slowly headed towards the sea.
Refreshment on Sagararani..
The guide ensured that all passengers on board were told about what were seen around - this included the Marine drive, Bolghatty, Fort Kochi, the cruise terminal, etc etc. Since, this wasn't our first journey on Sagararani, me, and my family members, headed to the front. I headed straight to the deck - the serang in control was a very jovial guy. He was happy to see people talk to him and ask him about his job. It was a young guy at the front, who was aiming at driving a tug one day. We explained in detail about the training process and the examinations they need to clear before they get licenses to drive around these vessels.
The sun is already setting!
Thats Queen Mary -2 heading out of Kochi..
An SWTD Ferry vessel.. thats MV Lagoons in the background
As we neared the sea, the crew re-checked if all the passengers were wearing their life jackets and were seated. The enforcement of safety measures were ensured by the presence of marine police and coast guard officials who were patrolling the area. Once into the open seas, the continuous commentary stopped and got replaced by entertainment. Passengers in the vessel were encouraged to participate.

The highlight of the entire day was the presence of the cruise ship Queen Mary 2. The vessel of mammoth proportions was leaving the port of Kochi after a quick visit - carrying over 2000 passengers! We were maintaining a safe distance with the vessel as we slowly moved towards the sea. Queen Mary 2 was under speed restrictions till they cleared the port limits. The serang of our vessel was talking about the special instructions all the vessels in the area were given - including the paths they were forbidden to take.

It was a cloudy day and hence we couldn't witness the sunset, as such. As we headed to the sea, another ship joined Queen Mary - this was MV Lagoons heading to the Lakshadweep. It was fun seeing these passenger vessels out in the sea. I also saw a Coast Guard patrol ship also for the first time - it was ICGS Abhinav, an Aadesh class patrol vessel. It moved quite fast. We moved a little more into the sea - we crossed another passenger vessel in the seas - that was MV Kavaratti, in bound from Lakshadweep. We turned around sometime around 1840hrs - and moved back to Kochi. I realised that the outbound was actually slow and the vessel moved faster on its way back. It got dark by now.
Returning to Kochi.. thats a Container vessel @ Vallarpadam Container Terminal. The floating lighthouse in Classic Paradise
All the three evening cruise vessels - ours (Sagararani), Sagararani-II and Classic Paradise moved together on the way back - we were leading the pack, though. As it got dark, the music on all the vessels got louder - the dance floors went berserk. The vessel had performers - a musician, and a few dancers - who put up their show. After a while of seeing the show, we headed to the lower deck and we rested in the cool confines of the conference hall below. We were finally dropped back at the KSINC Jetty near High Court around 1930hrs - ending an amazing trip to the sea. Although the intention was to witness the sun set - that didn't happen because it was too cloudy.

The trip was a handful of lovely memories - a ride through a sea without burning a hole in the pocket is always a great experience. I'd surely recommend this to all people visiting Kochi. I'd leave the choice of the vessel to you - but a sunset cruise to the sea is a must do in Kochi!

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Down the nilgiris on the Club Class

I had written about the circumstances that finally led to booking the Airavat Club Class for my trip from Ooty to Bengaluru in my earlier post (read here). It was a simple round trip booking with the routine discount they provide.

June 26, 2016:
Six awesome days had just ended - the ride on the Nilgiris Mountain Railway was an icing on the cake, and it happened perfectly on the last day (read here about that). I was in a confused state as the day began - a bit of sadness that I was leaving Ooty, and oodles of joy that I was returning home! I got up a little late - but then, that was regular in those six days. I hurried with my breakfast and asked the guys at my accomodation to get me a vehicle to travel to the bus station. It took some time to get the vehicle, and I left the place only by around 0945hrs - for a bus departing at 1000hrs. The place was just a couple of kilometres from the bus station and hence I made it there by 0955hrs.

My bus was already parked there, on platform #14. Just as I walked in, the crew called me - I did not pickup the call, but waved my phone at the crew, who understood and disconnected the call. The conductor confirmed my destination while leaving my bag in the luggage bay. I was the last to board - I just got on board and reached my seat, and the bus got moving (1001hrs) - a minute before scheduled time (1002hrs). Soon after the bus started, the conductor came around to distribute water bottles and plastic bags (as vomit bags). He checked if anyone had a special requests and went back to the cabin. The initial run was very slow - thanks to the terrible Sunday morning traffic in Ooty.
As we commenced our descent.. look at the width of the road..
A little into the run, the bus picked up pace. This driver was also the typical BCD-4 styled - he shifts gears quickly to 4th - the bus then cries, struggles, and vibrates as the engine struggles to remain alive. Traffic came to a standstill at TR Bazar, near Naduvattam. The issue was an under-construction culvert - and reckless private cars who don't care for heavy vehicles. The culvert was followed by a fairly sharp left curve immediately afterwards - vehicles lined up here, leaving no space for the bus to take a turn. This made things tight, and we lost about 10 minutes negotiating this curve. A little later, I moved to the first row and sat on the seats meant for the crew - I had informed the conductor earlier about this, and he had permitted.
Eucalyptus plantations on the way..
Approaching a hair-pin bend..
By now, we were fast descending the ghats. The driver maintained fairly good pace through the run. The crew were indicating that multi-axles are tight for these routes - and it was evident. The curves were tight, and the crew had a tough time passing them. Another major problem our crew faced were the reckless TNSTC buses. While our driver was honking before each major curve, TNSTC crew neither honked nor do they slow down - they just enter curves at speed and end up right in front. Sometime around 1130, the conductor started receiving calls from passengers who were boarding at Gudalur - he said we'll be there in another 15 minutes. The roads got narrower as we neared Gudalur town. We reached Gudalur at 1155hrs - the pick-up point is right outside the bus station - three passengers got in, and we started moving by 1157hrs. The road from Gudalur towards Bandipur is quite narrow and has a lot of curves. We reached Thorappalli check-post - the entrance to the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, at 1208. The crew exchanged pleasantries with the check-post staff (forest staff) and entered the forest.
Entering Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary..
Running through the forest..
The driver was very cautious and slow inside the forest - unlike my inbound trip, we did not have any wildlife spottings this time. The run through the forest was uneventful. We crossed into Karnataka at 1234hrs - we also crossed an Ooty bound Club class at the border. Its always fun to see the hand-wave exchanges when they cross another of their ilk. The run inside the forest was eventless here as well. We exit the forest at around 1253hrs. I headed back to my seat now. We passed Gundlupet at 1308hrs, and finally pulled into the same Nijaguna Spa and Resort at 1311hrs for lunch. The crew announced a 15 minute break and disappeared. I did not like this place the last time as well - its expensive and the food is very very average.
Passing another ACC on the way.. and we enter Karnataka here..
I gobbled down what ever I bought and walked out of the hotel. It had been raining heavily when I was having my food - it was drizzling when I came out of the hotel. After clicking some photos, I waited for the crew to come back. We started from there at 1341hrs - exactly 30 minutes break. The driver headed to sleep, and the conductor took to the wheels now. I too pushed back my seat and dozed off. The sun was on my side and it was an hindrance - but I was very sleepy that I just dozed off. I slept fairly well, and woke up only as we were entering Mysore bus station - the conductor was shouting out Mysore Mysore from the driver seat - he parked the bus near the fuel station (1451hrs) and then called out for passengers getting down at Mysore.
The bus: KA-01-F-9148, when we stopped for lunch..
We started off soon from Mysore at 1456hrs. The crew did not waste time trying to attract passengers from there. We rushed out of the city and joined the highway soon. Traffic was on the higher side since it was a Sunday. I slept off for some more time. I woke up just as the bus pulled into the Maddur break point, at 1610hrs. I thought this break was unwanted. Majority of the passengers did not get off the bus - the crew went, had food and came back. We started off at 1621hrs - the driver took to the wheels now (the conductor drove till there). We moved fairly fast till Channapatna - traffic came to a standstill here. We some how managed to pass Channapatna by 1708hrs. The scene repeated again at Ramanagara and again at Bidadi. The ugly face of weekend traffic showed up really well. The driver sped up between the towns, reaching upto 95kmph at times.
The branding...
We reached Kengeri only at 1830hrs - almost 3:30hrs to cover a little over 120kms! I was expecting traffic to get worse after that - but that wasn't the case, thankfully. We passed Deepanjali Nagar depot by 1845 and made it to Satellite BS by 1847hrs. Passengers were dropped outside the bus station, at the traffic signal, and we continued towards Shantinagar. We dropped passengers at Mysore Circle (1853hrs) and Corporation Circle (1859hrs) on the way. We finally reached Shantinagar by 1908hrs - over 9 hours since we left from Ooty, and over 4h10m from Mysore!

The bus, KA-01-F-9148, had clocked over 9.3 Lakh kms. This particular bus was earlier operated on the Bangalore-Ernakulam route, and then on the Bangalore-Thrissur route, before being moved to the Ooty route. The bus did show its age - there were some audible squeaks. The exteriors were in good shape and the interiors were fairly well maintained. The rear LCD panels were missing. The seats were quite tired as well. The crew were the typical BCD-4 styled - lugging experts. The vibration levels were terrible. I somehow don't appreciate this attitude of not keeping time to get fuel efficiency. The crew behaviour was awesome - both of them spoke soft and we really well behaved. Another good journey with the Airavat Crawler Class!

Amenities:
Blanket: No
Water: Yes - 500ml bottles.
Snacks: No
Charging Point: No
Entertainment: Available - Not used

Ratings:
Maintenance: 4/5 [Audible squeaks]
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 4/5 [Too much of lugging, terrible gearing]
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 4/5 [Quite delayed]

Overall: 4.5/5 [Value for money]

Will I take this service again? You don't have better options!

Sunday, July 03, 2016

The star of the blue hills! The Nilgiri Mountain Railways!

The Nilgiri Mountain Railways is, perhaps, the sole surviving metre-gauge railway line in India. India once had a large network of metre-gauge lines - but, probably, only this 46km line now survives. Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) is famous for more than this trivial reason - it is also a UNESCO Heritage site. The origin of the NMR dates back to 1908. It was originally laid by the British, and is now under the Salem Division of Southern Railway. NMR is also famous for being the sole section with regular scheduled steam powered trains.

I had last traveled in this section back in 2011 (read here). Back then, I couldn't enjoy much of the Coonoor-Ooty ride. I was in Ooty recently for a six-day long training program. On the closing day of the program, I and another participant who was at the venue decided to have a quick ride on the NMR. We initially thought of traveling from Ooty to Coonoor, but later reversed the stretch and decided to ride up the hills from Coonoor to Ooty.

June 25, 2016:
We hurried out of the venue sometime around 1430hrs. Luckily, we got an auto soon after we came out of the venue, which dropped us at the Ooty bus station some 5 minutes later. We had to be in Coonoor before 1600 to comfortably make it to the 56138 Coonoor-Udhagamandalam Passenger, than leaves at 1630hrs. We decided not to take an ordinary bus, but looked for a long distance bus, which could take us to Coonoor faster. We got a bus heading to Tiruppur - the conductor first didn't entertain us, but called us in as the bus started from the bus station. We were dropped at Coonoor by around 1550hrs. We rushed to the railway station to get our tickets. A notice at the ticket counter announced that only 140 tickets will be sold - Each coach had seating for about 57 passengers.
YDM4 #6730 with the rake.. @Coonoor.. 
The LP doing pre-departure checks..
The 56138 Udhagamandalam passenger had 5 coaches - including two-and-a-half unreserved second class sitting coaches, one-and-a-half reserved second class sitting and a half first class sitting coaches. A YDM4 (#6730) of Ponmalai (Golden Rock) Diesel Locomotive Shed was to work the consist up the hills. The loco was shut down at that time. The loco pilots came around at 1615hrs and turned on the engine. The familiar phur phur sounds from the loco began. The LPs were seen doing pre-departure checks on the engine. A bell was rung at 1625 announcing that the train would depart shortly, and one more at 1630hrs, followed by a series of whistles and green flags being waved by brakesmen in each coach. A long horn from the loco, and we slowly powered forward.
Starting off from Coonoor...
Based on my previous experience, I knew that the engine would be at the rear when the train heads to Ooty (Udhagamandalam) - Me and my friend selected seats based on this direction of movement, while majority of the passengers guessed the direction wrong and selected seats facing the engine. The train slowly crawled out of the station and moved towards Mettupalayam for some time. Soon all the brakesmen waved a red flag - a rarity on Indian Railways, and the train came to a complete halt. We stopped for a couple of minutes. Soon the semaphore lifted , the guard at the, now leading end, blew a long whistle, all the brakesmen waved the green flag, the loco blew a long horn and began pushing the train forward. The train makes a very sharp climb out of Coonoor, with a gradient of 1 in 27. Soon after the climb is a left curve and then the section more or less levels out.
The rare scene.. Red flags..
As the semaphore raises, the flags go green and we move forward..
The sharp climb out of Coonoor..
A little after we climbed up, the train came to a complete halt. I initially thought it could be some technical halt - but the loco honked a lot. It was not the usual emergency chain pull signal. A little later I understood what was the scene - cattle were blocking the permanent way! There was continuous honking from the loco for sometime. We slowly inched forward at the speed of the cattle, which was moving along the tracks. After a lot of attempts by the crew, the cattle moved off the track and we picked up speed. Speed - I am not talking of great speeds - we moved in the range of about 25-30kmph. There were some gradients around, and a total of three tunnels - all of them around 400~500m long. The first halt was at Wellington. My coach got fully crowded here - atleast 10-12 standing passengers in addition to 57 seated passengers.
Cattle slowing us down..
Gangmen on the way...
Crowded coach..
The section generally passes through sparsely inhabited areas - the tracks were lined on both sides with eucalyptus plantations. The valley got visible on the left side in some places. The smell of eucalyptus gave company through the journey. The air was chilling and my fingers got numb often. I did not note down the timings at each station. There were 4 stops, excluding the origin and destination, on the route - Wellington, Aravankadu, Ketti and Lovedale. Except Lovedale, the other stations were on the left side. There were some areas where I really wished I was on the ground than the train - lovely photogenic curves with awesome picturesque locales! From the looks of it, majority of the passengers were tourists who were travelling just to experience the train. The locals seem to prefer buses!
One of the three tunnels en route..
I saw a token exchange at Lovedale - but since the train moves are extremely slow speeds, and the train halts there, the token exchange was nothing spectacular. The train stopped, the pointsman handed over the token and collected the old token. A highway ran parallel to the tracks after Lovedale, and a lot of vehicle drivers stopped to see the train - feels very good. There is one ghost station - more of a halt station - at Fernhill. The train fully slowed, honked and picked pace again. We pulled into Udhagamandalam a little before the scheduled time. People jostled to get off the train so that they could click selfies with the train. The coach has only one exit, which is terribly narrow as well. There is another door, that opens to the platform outside the coach, which is used by the brakesman. They used this door as well to let passengers out. While I did not click selfies, but I did spend some time clicking the train.
After we reached Udhagamandalam...
This was another awesome trip on the NMR. The last time, I slept through this section (Coonoor to Udhagamandalam) - so this trip was an awesome chance to experience the section fully. The seats in this coach was terrible - hardly any legroom, and the seats were narrow. The seats were good for this 1 hour ride, but certainly not for a longer ride to Mettupalayam. That is not a deal breaker - you are becoming part of a heritage ride anyways! The ticket counter at Coonoor issued the normal computer printed tickets using the Unreserved ticketing system - the good ol' Edmundson tickets would have helped keep the heritage feel. Another railway journey that I enjoyed - and perhaps the sole metreguage and steam section that the future generations in India would witness [I did not travel in the steam section as part of this journey]. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Club Class'd: Bangalore to Ooty!

A six day training workshop in Ooty. Once the approvals from office came, and the registration got confirmed, I got to the task of booking tickets. I just checked with RedBus if there were private operators - but only some Sleepers showed up. I did not want a Sleeper bus to ride up the ghats. The next option was obvious - Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC). KSRTC operates Volvo buses on this route - both day and night. They upgraded some of their services to Airavat Club Class a few months ago, as well. I was always surprised how these Multi-axle buses manage the windy road up to Ooty from Gudalur. Without much thinking, I went ahead and booked both ways on day services.

June 19, 2016:
I still had the hangover of the previous days journeys. I got up a little late because of that. After a hurried breakfast, I hunted for an Ola! Cabs were scarce since it was a Sunday morning. After a bit of hunting, I managed to get one, who dropped me at Shantinagar by around 0900hrs. My bus to Ooty was scheduled to leave at 0917, and I was quite surprised to see that the bus was not brought from the depot yet. While waiting, a FlyBus arrived, and later headed towards the airport. My bus was brought in at 0915hrs - with just two minutes to go for departure. The bus was KA-01-F-9201 of Bangalore Central Division, Depot-4 (commonly called as BCD-4 depot). Boarding started a couple of minutes later. I was quite shocked to see the crowd - we had over 30 passengers to board from there, and most of them were to Ooty.
The bus being brought in to Shantinagar BS..
We started off at 0930hrs - with a delay of 13 minutes - from Shantinagar. The first few kilometres were a crawl - till we passed Town Hall. The driver picked up pace after we entered the long Mysore road flyover. The driving was the typical BCD-4 style. Shift 1-2-3-4-5-6 as soon as possible and let the engine struggle, scream and cry for a downshift - the entire bus vibrates as the engine struggles to put out power at low RPMs and high gears. We made it to the Satellite bus station in Mysore road by 0948hrs. A couple of families joined us here, and a the crew managed to get some unreserved passengers to Mysore as well. We crawled out of our platform at 0952, but left the bus station only by 0955hrs.

We continued crawling once on the Mysore highway. The crew changed, and the conductor took to the wheels, while the driver headed to sleep for a while. The conductor had the same driving style - he never exceeded 75kmph, but remained in 6th gear all the time. It was terribly boring sitting through all that crawling. Traffic was on the higher side, and we had no opportunity to speed up, most of the time. Traffic came to a standstill as we neared Mysore, especially near the ring road signal. We passed the signal by 1236 and continued crawling to the city. There was more traffic as we neared the bus station, and we finally entered the bus station around 1250hrs. We couldn't pull into any platform due to the terrible traffic inside the bus station. We somehow picked up passengers who had reserved earlier, and managed to get a few walk-in passengers as well.

We somehow managed to beat the traffic inside the bus station and exited the bus station by 1309hrs. The driver was back at the wheels now. He picked pace soon after leaving city limits. I kept my eyes on the road to find out which bus would be bringing me back from Ooty. I spotted that bus around 1400hrs. We pulled in for our lunch break at Nijaguna Spa and Resorts, just before Gundlupet at 1412hrs. It was a resort - but seemed partly dysfunctional. The place had two restaurants, a bakery and some more stuff - but only one restaurant was open. Bold, yellow boards with "Self Service" was kept everywhere inside the hotel. The billing counter was clueless of what was available and took their own sweet time to collect money and issue tokens. The food was terribly overpriced, quantity was really less and the food tasted very very average. I, at this point, felt Coffe Stoppe where my bus spotted the previous day, was far cheaper and the food better for the price point.
During lunch break..
After finishing my meal quickly, I headed outside to click some pics. By now the Kozhikode-Bangalore service of KaSRTC also joined in for meals. We started off after lunch by 1447hrs. As we started off, my co-passenger asked the crew about the arrival time at Ooty - he said it will take another 3~3:30hrs. The person quickly added that the scheduled time was 1620 - the conductor immediately replied, the bus has to climb a ghat and the timings weren't considering the ghat section. The roads got narrow as we passed Gundlupet and entered the road towards Bandipur. We entered the forest by around 1510hrs. The driver slowed down after he entered the forest - and kept speeds in the range of around 40kmph. There were too many speed breakers and it was not possible to keep speed anyway. There were quite a lot of deer on the road. At one point, one idiot went honking continuously and scared the deer off the road - the cheapest and most idiotic thing to do. We crossed over to Tamilnadu by around 1526hrs and exited the forest by around 1533hrs. The roads from the KA-TN border to Thorappalli checkpost is now in great shape - last time I went through this road, the road had put the lunar surface to shame.
Inside the forest.. an idiot scaring deer..
Somewhere inside the forest..
The ghats.. here we come..
We reached Gudalur by 1600hrs. Three passengers who had to get off here did not bother informing the crew till they passed the bus station and got into traffic. The driver had a really tough time finding a place with enough space to stop the bus and let the passengers get off. In the process we lost some time, and started off only at 1604hrs. Now began the section that I was looking out for - the ghats! This route to Ooty doesn't have too many hairpin bends (some 3-4 if I remember it right) - but the route is very twisty and curvy. The driver kept downshifting and upshifting many times. Many of the curves were being straightened - they were building new culverts to reduce the curvature. These works meant that the road width available reduced further.
Up the hills....
When some vehicles refused to respect the big vehicle on a curve..
This bus being longer than the other vehicles, meant the driver had a tough time clearing most of the curves. As we continued climbing, the weather got cooler and the glasses started fogging up. To add to the misery, fog was building up outside as well. The bus did not seem to have a defogger and this kept adding to the misery of the driver. He would often open the door to defog the front glass. As we neared Ooty, fog got thicker. It drizzled for quite some time as well. Car drivers seemed to be worst breed on the road - they jump right in front of the bus at every curve and show least courtesy to drivers of these huge vehicles. Downhill traffic was on the higher side, and majority of the vehicles were Karnataka registered, and they all seemed to compete with each other to beat the forest closure time.
The natural defogger.. open the door!
When we stopped for tea...
We pulled in for a tea break a little before TR Bazar, Naduvattam, at 1700hrs. The break was welcome - it was really cold. Hot tea and a fried snack was a great idea! I clicked some pics as well. We started off at 1712hrs and continued the climb. Traffic thinned out a bit as we crossed Pykara. As we neared Ooty, stop requests started appearing. We first stopped at Finger Post (1804hrs). A convoy of KSRTC buses to Bangalore crossed us here - almost all the buses to Bangalore depart together, around 6pm, since they need to cross the forest before 9pm in order to beat the forest travel ban. Traffic was really thick after Finger Post, especially as we entered the town. We finally pulled into the bus station at 1814hrs - about 1h57m behind schedule. The running time was about 8h44m, for a distance of approximately 300kms, of which about 70kms was a nice tough ghat, which took approximately 2 hours to cover.
One more pic of KA-01-F-9201.. during tea break..
The bus, KA-01-F-9201, had clocked a little over 9.96lakh kms. It was fairly well kept - not in exemplary condition, though. Both the crew members were soft spoken - the typical Airavat crew! The driving was just average - they lugged the engine badly. Proper gearing would've really got us to Ooty a little more faster - compared to the time they took. The driver refuses to speed up even on empty roads - just to meet KSRTC's fuel saving obsession. While there is nothing wrong in saving fuel, it shouldn't be at the cost of passenger's time. Although the bus was late, I feel the run time was okayish.

Amenities:
Blanket: No
Water: Yes - 500ml bottles.
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Yes - On throughout
Entertainment: Available - Not used

Ratings:
Maintenance: 4.5/5 [Audible squeaks]
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 4/5 [Too much of lugging, terrible gearing]
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 4/5 [was delayed compared to schedule, but had the opportunity to minimise the delay]

Overall: 4.5/5 [Value for money]

Will I take this service again? You don't have better options!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Kozhikode to Bangalore: Garuda King Class!

I had written in my previous post about booking this journey. I had been planning a trip on this bus for a long long time. I had two reasons for this plan - this would be me first time ascending the Thamarassery Ghat in a Volvo bus during the day, and second, this would be the first day trip in a Kerala RTC Volvo Multi-axle bus. I first checked tickets for this bus, and found that the left side window seat on the first row was available - perfectly what I wanted. I booked this seat first, before booking the Muvattupuzha-Kozhikode ticket (read about that trip here).

June 18, 2016:
I had reached Kozhikode at 0300hrs. I spent time roaming around the bus station till 0400hrs. It was raining for most of the time, and I waited till the rain subsided a bit. I walked out of the bus station sometime around 0415 and headed to a lodge outside and took a room - I wanted to stretch a bit and then get fresh. I checked out of the room by 0600hrs and walked back to the bus station. While walking back to the bus station, I noticed that the Bangalore-Kozhikode buses of both the KSRTC were arriving together, and both headed into the bus station. The Kerala State RTC bus (RS785) which had just arrived would take me to Bangalore at 0830hrs - in effect, the bus gets less than two hours at its home depot for any check-up or cleaning.
My bus: RS785. Its seen returning to its depot after arriving from Bangalore.
I headed out of the bus station sometime around 0730 for breakfast, and came back around 0800hrs. Kozhikode bus station is, honestly, not the best design around. The bus station has serious design flaws and drivers find it really difficult to get to the boarding bays. The buses park at the same level where passengers stand - so passengers need to take quite an effort to get into the buses. Since the multi-axle buses are longer than regular buses, they've allotted the first bay for Multi-axle buses - so they could directly reverse out of the bus station and take the entry route for their exit.

My bus, RS785, was brought in by 0809hrs. Boarding started almost immediately. The driver opened the luggage bay to allow passengers leave their bags there. I waited outside for sometime. I got in soon after the bus was switched on and AC turned on. The bus was around 40% full and a few walk-in passengers (mostly to Kalpetta and Sulthan Bathery) joined. We started off at 0833hrs - about three minutes late. The driver was fairly fast right from the beginning. They took the mini-bypass road, before entering the Wayanad road and then the National Highway. I had a terrible hangover from the sleepless night earlier and I fell asleep soon after we entered the highway.
Garuda King Class. The Chariot of Kerala.
I slept for quite sometime - I vaguely remember the bus starting off from Thamarassery. I was too sleepy to note the time - but I guess it was sometime around 0915 or so. I continued sleeping for sometime. I woke up just as we were leaving Adivaram. I pulled up the backrest and got ready to enjoy the ghats. The driver was quite fast even as we commenced ascending the ghat. The first hairpin bend itself was tight - private vehicles jump in between and make matters worse for the big vehicles. Out of the 9 hairpin bends in the ghat section, we had to reverse at two, stop and turn slowly at two. At one hairpin bend, one car guy came and stopped quite close forcing the driver to reverse and turn - these car drivers never learn to respect bigger vehicles on ghats.
Climbing the Ghats...
The climb was really good - but I felt the driver was bit too fast on the ghats. A little slower driving would've made life easier for passengers - the constant swings made a couple of people puke. We entered Wayanad district at 1004hrs. We slowed a little after we entered Wayanad since the traffic increased. Our next stop was at Kalpetta (1022hrs). Since the bus does not enter the bus station, he drove till the town and stopped on the road side. Quite a lot of reserved passengers joined here, along with a few more walk-in passengers. We started from Kalpetta at 1024hrs. In the meantime, the conductor was getting calls from passengers boarding at Sulthan Bathery - since the scheduled departure there was 1020hrs - a terribly impractical timing. They've allotted less than two hours for the bus to cover close to 100 kms through a two-lane road and a nice ghat section thrown in between.
A little before we entered Wayanad...
The conductor called every passenger boarding from Sulthan Bathery and intimated them that the bus would not reach the bus station and the pick-up point is at Chungam/Kottakkunnu. We first stopped at Chungam bus stop in Sulthan Bathery at 1056hrs - half of the reserved passengers boarded here, and we left at 1058hrs. We travelled a little forward and stopped at Kottakkunnu - just past the turn towards the KSRTC Bus Station - at 1101hrs. The rest of the reserved passengers joined here. We started from here at 1104hrs. An elderly couple who boarded here seemed really worried and spoke to the conductor a big concern they had - they had to catch a train from Mysore at 1415hrs! They had booked this bus since it had a scheduled departure at 1020hrs and the website claimed the bus reaches Mysore at 1255hrs! While the running time given here was possible, but the departure time was impossible!

The conductor replied that the bus regularly reaches before 1400hrs and they'll help them get an auto which would take a short cut to get to the railway station. The bus was now entering the forest section. We passed Muthanga checkpost at 1116hrs - this is where vehicles are detained during the night travel embargo. The driver slowed down a bit after we entered the forest. The roads till the Karnataka border was well paved - roads got a little bad after that (not very bad though). Speed breakers became more common after we crossed into Karnataka. The driver had a very peculiar style - he brakes for the speed breaker, brings the speed down to around 20kmph, and then releases the break - the bus jumps over the speed breaker, and he picks speed. He honked quite a bit inside the forest - which I absolutely disliked.

We reached Gundlupet at 1203hrs - a couple of passengers got off here. We sped towards Mysore - I really hoped they stopped for lunch after Mysore - but that wasn't the case. We pulled into the routine Hotel Coffe Stoppe for lunch at 1208hrs. This is a place I absolutely prefer to avoid - the food isn't great and is expensive (I changed this opinion the very next day though). I quickly had something for lunch - the food was terrible, as usual. I took off sometime taking some photos of the beast that was taking me to Bangalore. The crew hurried with their food, much to the relief of the elderly couple who had to get a train from Mysore. We started off at 1235hrs. The driver maintained pace on the highway - the bus was locked at 80kmph and the driver remained at that speed all the time.
The bus: RS785, taken during the lunch break.. 
It was getting boring to crawl at that speed on the empty highway. After a little bit, road got bad - Four laning works were in progress and hence a lot of diversions were enforced. We did a bit of off roading on the way. We stopped at Nanjangud (1303hrs) to drop a couple of passengers on the way. The driver maintained the pace wherever he could - but then some vehicles did play hurdle by not letting him overtake. They do the typical mallu style of increasing speed the moment someone tries to overtake, and slowing down the moment the other vehicle aborts the attempt - repeat again during the next overtake attempt. This is the worst form of driving on road.

We stopped briefly near the Mysore palace to let the elderly couple get an auto to the railway station and we continued to the Suburban.. er! Central Bus Station in Mysore. We got to the bus station by 1340hrs. As usual, the crew did not enter the bus station - they stopped on the road side, but near the Bangalore platform. They managed to get a couple of passengers to Bangalore and we started off at 1341hrs. I was quite sleepy and slowly tried to sleep for sometime - the sun was on my side and I moved to the aisle seat (which was empty throughout) instead. I remember seeing the bus pass the outer ring road junction - I dozed off after that. I woke up just as the conductor shouted out a tea break - the time was 1443hrs and we were somewhere near Maddur. The smell of Maddur Vada being fried swept through the bus - but I was too tired and sleepy to get off the bus. I continued dozing for a while. We started off at 1453hrs.

I dozed off for some more time and woke up as we pulled over at Kengeri to drop a passenger - the time was 1621hrs. Traffic ahead was a bit heavy. The driver seemed a little drowsy - he badly needed some rest. We crawled past traffic and finally entered Mysore road Satellite Bus Station at 1641hrs - some 51 minutes behind the advertised schedule. The end-to-end running time turned to 8h08m - which is very impressive for covering a little over 350kms during the day, in a predominantly two laned stretch with quite a bit of ghat in between. The time schedule displayed on the KSRTC website is terribly over-estimated.

The bus, RS785, KL-15-A-283, of Kozhikode depot, had covered over 4.9 lakh kms and was kept in fairly great shape. The exteriors did bear scars of the regular trips it makes through the ghats - dents and scratches. The interiors appeared worn - this particular service is operated using a single bus and has the best revenue among all the Volvo buses operated by KSRTC. It earns the most money per revenue kilometre operated - the best among all KSRTC services. It badly deserves a pairing bus. The bus, even after all the torture it undergoes, was kept in great shape. No rattles from the suspension were heard, nor did the bus show signs of poor maintenance. The crew were good as well - the driver appeared to have been overworked - a severe point of worry for KSRTC. Overall - a service I liked a lot.

Amenities:
Blanket: Available on request
Water: Yes - 500ml bottles, given only on request
Snacks: No
Charging Point: Yes - On throughout
Entertainment: Available - Songs played

Ratings:
Maintenance: 5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 5/5
Crew behaviour: 5/5
Punctuality: 5/5 [was delayed compared to schedule, but the schedule is impractical]

Overall: 5/5 [Absolute Value for money]

Will I take this service again? I don't travel this route often - but will surely recommend.