Thursday, August 21, 2014

Kakkadamboyil on Nilambur's mini Elephant... KSRTC Fans Trip; Part-2


July 26, 2014:

We trundled from the lodge to the KSRTC bus station. Water had puddled everywhere on the roadside - it had rained fairly heavily the previous night. The walk to the bus station took about 10 minutes - all of us were dead hungry as well. No tea shops were seen anywhere on the route. We walked into the KSRTC bus station at Nilambur by around 0630hrs - our bus was still about 15 minutes away. The rest of the gang was already at the bus station - there were 13 more members along. The three of us went berserk clicking buses at the depot - some of the buses had already left the depot, while the others were being woken up by their crew.
Nilambur Sub Depot...

Our bus all set to depart with the I Love My KSRTC sponsored destination board.
In the mean time, the I Love My KSRTC team-members were busy stickering a new destination board for our ride. The bus that would take us through the mesmerizing journey was RNC956, an Ashok Leyland Cheetah Short Wheelbase bus. The bus started off from the depot at around 0655 - about 10 minutes late. It was just the 16 of us in the bus now. All the vantage points were grabbed. Even the ladies seats were not spared - the crew had informed us about the general travelling pattern on the route. More and more passengers joined as the journey progressed - we passed through Nilambur town and then turned off to the road towards Moolepadam. The road was fairly wide initially - but it got narrower as we ran further. At some places, the road was wide only for a vehicle. I was informed that a few private buses operate on the route - but we did not spot any.
The route in the beginning lap..
At one point of time the bus was packed - fully packed. But it lasted only for some time - later, it was us and a few others. After Moolepadam bridge, the ghats began. The driver, Mr. Najeeb, was a veteran on the route - in fact, it is him at the wheels most of the days! The bus responded greatly - it handled all the climbs with ease. The roads aren't wide - infact, its really narrow at curves and it some stretches. At some places, one will sit awestruck wondering where the road it - all you'd see is a sharp climb - a first timer will surely get scared of what lies after the climb. There were places where the driver literally stopped on the track, shifted to the crawler, and then fired on all the guns.
One of the many hair-pin bends...
The valley seen from the bus...
We continue our run...
Will you believe a bus runs this way???
Najeeb was at home when he took sharp hair-pin bends with ease - in fact, he was talking about his experiences driving this route, and mentioned about a trial with a regular bus - the bus got stuck at one of the hairpin bends and they had to reverse it a long distance to get it out of the road.  While he was busy and engrossed detailing his experiences, he had one hand on the gear lever and one on the steering - and he was busy negotiating the bus through tight curves. I and Jayadeep were at the front - both of us had goosebumps when we saw him maneuver through the tight hair-pin bends and hardly a lane wide roads. At one of the dead curves, we had a lady requesting for a stop! If that was me, I'd probably have gone without stopping.
About to depart after a photo-op!
The route once again...
But Najeeb had no reservations - he just stopped the bus a bit before the turn and signalled the lady to come to the bus. Then shifted to crawler, and we had the 160hp engine responding crisp. On the way, our request for a photo stop was honoured - he stopped the bus at a beautiful place and let us go berserk. The route was beautiful and scenic all the way from Moolepadam till Kakkadampoyil. We did not realise that we reached Kakkadampoyil until Najeeb told us we had reached our destination - we were dropped there at around 0810hrs - it was raining slightly then. Najeeb waved at us and drove off towards Thiruvambady.
The bus goes off after dropping us at Kakkadampoyil..
By now, all of us were dead hungry by now - so the target was to search for our breakfast. Someone in our group had already identified a small restaurant already - so all of us headed there. This was a typical village tea-shop - and the only item on the menu was Kerala's national food - Parotta. This typical Malabari bread made of refined flour is a craze in Kerala now, and there are people who live on it all the time. The accompaniments available was Chickpeas Curry and Fish Curry. The parotta was no doubt one of the best I've had in recent times. We then down a serving of Kozhikode's famous Podi Chaya (Tea made using CTC Tea Dust, in a slightly different method).

Some members in our team had now set out to negotiate with Jeeps to ferry us to Kozhipara falls - a couple of kilometres away from Kakkadampoyil. I was getting into a 4x4 Jeep after a very long time now - and I got into the front seat (no doubt). The ride takes about 10 minutes - the roads were in great shape all the way. I did expect some off-roading, but nothing of the sort happened. We asked the jeep guys to wait for us to get back from the falls, and drop us at the Kozhipara bus stop (which is about half a kilometre from the falls). Kozhipara is a beautiful cascade - being in the midst of heavy rains meant the falls were in full flow. We had no chance of going anywhere near the water - and it was not recommended either. After some photography and absorbing the whiff of fresh air, we were back to the jeep.
A look at Kozhipara Cascade...
Najeeb comes back for us...
We had about 15 minutes time at Kozhipara - there was a small tea shop at the bus stop, and all of us attacked this shop now. Najeeb came back to Kozhipara with his lovely RNC956 to take us back to Kakkadampoyil from Kozhipara - this time the bus was empty and we spent most of the time talking to the crew. The ride to Kakkadampoyil took about 10 minutes. We got off at Kakkadampoyil and started our wait for the next bus to Thiruvambady. In the meantime, a bus bound to Kozhikode turned up - and the crew suggested that we could get to Thiruvambady by getting off at Mukkam by going in that bus. While we appreciated the crew's attitude to attract passengers, we declined the offer.
RAC144 of Thiruvambady Depot arriving @ Kakkadampoyil...
By around 1035, RAC144 of Thiruvambady appeared at Kakkadampoyil - this bus would take us to Thiruvambady. This bus was packed to the core by the time it left Kakkadampoyil. Some of us were fortunate to have got seats - while some from our gang were standing. This journey was as scenic as the Nilambur-Kakkadampoyil trip. After some time of descending the ghats, we could smell burnt rubber and smell of the clutch getting fried. At one point there was a lot of smoke emanating from beneath the bus. The ride lasted about an hour, and we were dropped at Thiruvambady by around 1135. Our connecting bus was waiting for us (literally waiting for us) - this time it was - TP76 - a 2000 model Ashok Leyland. The bus was in great shape - it even had working turn indicators! The Thiruvambady-Thamarassery route was a typical rural Kerala route - it had mild gradients, but not a ghat route as such. We reached Thamarassery by around 1215hrs.

To be continued... (Read the previous part here)

Friday, August 15, 2014

A ride to Nilambur - KSRTC Fans Trip; Part-1

One fine day while browsing through the umpteen posts that came on my Facebook wall, I came across a set of images describing a place as Malabar's Gavi (Gavi is a recently made famous tourist destination in Pathanamthitta district in South Kerala). The photos were quite inviting, and I did make some plans to explore the place - I kept it on my wish list. Some days later, planning for a KSRTC Fans trip was in full steam - the trip was to cover some tourist places in Malabar. I wanted to somehow include our Malabar Gavi in the trip - just like the patient wanted, this place was included in our itinerary.

July 25, 2014:
I and Jayadeep set out from my house in search of a KSRTC bus to Thrissur. The last bus had just ran away teasing us. I knew that there is one more bus a little later - so the endless wait for that bus started. As the clock ticked past 2015hrs, I got a bit anxious and we decided to take the last KSRTC bus of the day - that one is only till Irinjalakkuda, some 20kms short of Thrissur. The bus was quite empty - I was a bit upset about the bad start. As we got off at Irinjalakkuda, a fairly crowded private bus appeared - left with no choice, we ran in to the bus. The bus dropped us near the KSRTC bus station around 2130hrs. After a quick dinner, we started bus watching. One thing was sure - all the buses were crowded, and it was almost impossible to get into any bus towards our destination - Nilambur!

My only hope was the 2300hrs Thrissur-Bangalore Super Deluxe, via Nilambur. I had checked this bus before leaving home - and the bus had more than half the seats empty. As the clock ticked by, buses got even more crowded. Thrissur is one very busy bus station - but it doesn't have even half the space required to handle the crowd. Sometime around 2230hrs, the Deluxe was brought in - the conductor was a Boss - he did not take our request for two seats to Nilambur lightly. He looked at us with scorn. We remained outside the bus - as the clock ticked past 2255hrs, the conductor called for short distance passengers - as we saw, passengers travelling distances even shorter than us barged into the bus. We had no time to lose, and we too barged in. Grabbed two seats at the back row and we settled down.
RSC682 of Thrissur (images from the archives)

The bus (RSC682) left the bus station sharp at 2300hrs. All the 39 seats were sold - a good proportion were passengers to Perinthalmanna. The conductor came around to sell tickets - it was Rs 131 per person. The bus headed to some patchy roads - the ride at the back was amazingly comfortable. The maintenance team at Thrissur surely has done a great job in keeping the suspension in great shape. I had travelled in the same bus once earlier, but that was at the front - the ride did not feel great then. I was loving every minute of the ride. By now the bus was near Shoranur. We slept off for some time - it was a long day ahead for us. I was woken up when the bus reached Perinthalmanna - a whole lot of people got off here, and the same number got in as well. We left Perinthalmanna at 0032hrs. I slept off again. I woke up again just as the bus was pulling in to Nilambur bus station - the time was 0124hrs then - so that was a 2h24m long ride!

We walked out of the bus station soon after the bus dropped us there. It was all dark around, and we did not have any orientation of where we were - both of us were half asleep.We walked towards the road with no particular destination in mind. There was an expensive hotel nearby - but we did not want to burn that much of money for hardly 4 hours. Our aim was to get a room and sleep for some time before we started for the next long day. We decided to walk towards the town. Both of us walked aimlessly towards the town in search of a lodge. Everytime we saw a hoarding or a lit board, we looked at it with hope - but they were some odd shop. Jayadeep jumped up in joy when we saw a series of ATMs - he ran into one. After than we continued our aimless walk - we saw Seenai Holiday Home. The main gate was locked - so we had to find a way of going in. Later, we found there was another gate - we went in. By now it started raining hard. The receptionist was fast asleep - we had to shout a bit to wake him up - he opened the gate for us, and allotted a room. All I remember was lying on the bed - woke up only when Jayasankar called up to find out my whereabouts - he was coming right behind us.

I told him how to reach us, and continued sleeping. I do not remember when he reached - but he did reach the room. My senses were restored only when the alarm rang at 0500. After the morning rituals, all the three of us were game to go. I was the first to leave the hotel - since I wanted to visit the ATM. The other two joined me at the ATM, and we started our half-a-km walk to the KSRTC Bus Station in Nilambur - we never realised we had walked so far at midnight!

To be continued...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

AP Tourism Package Tour - Bangalore to Tirupathi

The Tirupati-Tirumala Devasthanams is one of the richest and busiest Hindu sites of pilgrimage in the world. Although I am not a very religious person, I always cherished the desire to visit this holy place. There is a rhetoric which goes that one cannot meet the lord unless he decides to let you see him. This was very true in my case. I had planned multiple times to visit the temple over the past two years, but it never happened. I was a bit too anxious about the crowd there, and hence thought it would be safer to make the first foray through a package tour. Now came the question - Which package? There were lots of operators providing package tours from Bangalore. After reviewing a lot of information on the Internet, I decided to stick to a government operator. Now came another confusion - Karnataka Tourism or Andhra Pradesh Tourism? Some posts on the internet claimed that AP Tourism had better clout and hence they'd be better. From a Bus fan's perspective the decision was even more tougher - KSTDC offered a brand new Volvo B9R Multi-Axle bus, while APTDC offered Mercedes Benz O-500R Bi-Axle 12M coaches! Since this would be my first trip, I decided to try APTDC. The APTDC website is a bit confusing - the layout is all cluttered. I selected two seats on the right side (my dad was coming along) - the transaction went through, but no ticket came! I was a bit too worried now - was the Lord's wishes against mine? I sat dazzled for some time - as if the Lord changed his mind, my mobile gives off the message tone - that was an SMS from APTDC with details of my booking. I had a sigh of relief now. So the trip was on.

June 30, 2014:
The bus was at 9pm, and that meant that I must leave home atleast by 7pm so that I reach the APTDC Office (Off Race Course Road in Bangalore) comfortably in time. I booked a cab online (Genie Cabs -the new low-cost variant of Meru Cabs) with an 1845hrs pick-up - for some reason, I'm not comfortable with Meru Cabs, and I find them quite unreliable. Perhaps this is why I chose an 1845hrs pick-up. I reached home only by about 1815hrs from office. By the time I got fresh, the clock ticked past 1850hrs - and I hadn't received any confirmation about my cab booking. My belief about Meru was not coming true - by around 1855hrs, the confirmation came, with the phone number of the driver. The car did not come till 1915- by now I lost my cool. Later called the driver and asked him to park wherever he was. We headed out in my bro's car to hunt down the car, and got him half a km away from home. Finally, at 1930hrs, got hold of the cab and started off. It was raining quite well now, and I was too worried.

Bannerghatta Road was flooded and just added to my misery. All the signals had long queues - I was getting worried by the minute. After spending more than a nervous hour in the cab, we were dropped off near the APTDC office near Shivananda Circle - at 2053hrs. Just paid the cab guy and rushed off to the office. The guys checked the ticket and took down my details on the trip sheet - they asked for the full address and emergency contact details. They said that the bus would arrive in a while, and went about calling other passengers who hadn't reported till then. The bus came in sharp at 2100hrs - and it stopped on the main road itself, about 100mts away from the office. It was still raining, and it was slushy all around. We had to walk through the rain to get to the bus. The bus was AP23-Y-5143 - a 2-Axle Mercedes Benz bus. The bus did not look well maintained at the first look. There were two drivers on board - they gave off a smile as we boarded.

Our seats were on the third row, on the right side. Boarding took some time, as it was still raining outside. In the meantime a guy from the office came and took a head count. I overheard him telling the driver that there are 20 passengers on the manifest, three are not travelling, 5 passengers to be picked up from Marathahalli - we were waiting for 2 more passengers to turn up. The two passengers came shortly - the crew were well behaved, they did not shout or quarrel with them. After a final head count, the bus got moving at 2119hrs. The roads were still crowded, and rain added to the misery. MG road and Old Airport Road were all a mess. After a lot of crawling, we stopped at Marathahalli for the next pick-up - 2206hrs. Pick-up was quick, and we got moving at 2207hrs. I was half asleep already, and slowly drifted asleep as the bus continued its journey. The engine sounded as it it was struggling - now that is a 305hp engine powering the bus. The suspension made a lot of noise and everytime we went through a rough patch, the bus made sounds similar to a sea-saw. I woke up just as the drivers announced a dinner break. It was 2320hrs - and we were at Kamat Upachar near Narsapura. I just roamed around the bus for some time and waited for the crew to come back - we started off at 2353hrs.
The bus - AP23Y5143 when we stopped at Sree Padmavathi Temple, Tiruchanoor
I slept off soon after we started. The window facing air vents of the Mercedes was making things very difficult - APTDC provides full sized blankets and that did help matters a bit. I slept fairly well - but remember waking up frequently. We were woken up by the driver as the bus stopped outside Hotel Srinivasa Residency in Tirupati - the clock read 0335hrs. The driver asked passengers to take all the baggage and get off the bus - as we entered the hotel, our Guide welcomed us and quickly arranged rooms. They give double occupancy rooms - single passengers are charged the difference amount. The rooms were quite big, fairly clean. There was a TV as well. We were asked by the guide to be ready by 0430hrs - so there was no time to rest. Went about the morning chores quickly and we were out of the room by 0430hrs sharp. I thought that our bus had gone away (since the crew asked all passengers to take all their baggage) - but the bus was parked on the opposite side of the road. The guide took us to the bus - woke up the driver, who opened the door, switched on the AC and lights and let the passengers in. The guide took some time to come - he came and we started off at 0453hrs. The guide now announced the program for the day - first on the itinerary was a visit to Alamelu Mangapuram - Padmavathi Temple. Then breakfast, and then travel to Tirumala. The driver was fairly fast - the roads to the temple were two-laned and it wasn't in great shape.

We reached the temple (Sri Padmavathi Ammavari Temple, Thiruchanoor) at 0505hrs - the guide made a brief narration about the history and importance of the temple, and informed that we needed to take a Rs. 25 ticket for the darshan - he escorted all the passengers to the queue, and then instructed where we should assemble after getting the ticket. The queue was fairly long, but a co-passenger in the bus helped us get tickets quickly. After getting the ticket, we headed towards the Darshan queue. By the time we reached, the entry for Suprabhatam was over, and we were waiting for Sahasranamarchana. The entry for this seva begins only at 0530, and we had to wait until then. As soon as the clock ticked 0530, the queue moved forward quickly. We passed through a layer of security checks - each pilgrim is frisked and they ensure that no electronic gadgets go in by any chance. Darshan was completed quickly - being early morning, majority of the pilgrims were part of package tours - I had a very nice darshan. We rushed out of the temple complex quickly - the Guide was standing right at the place where we come out of the temple - he guided us back to the bus.

We started off from Alamelumangapuram at 0602hrs. Now the guide explained about the remaining program. We stopped for breakfast at Hotel Udayee International at 0611hrs - the hotel is bang outside Tirupati bus station (the one closer to the railway station). Three other APTDC Package buses were already there - this meant that the restaurant was crowded. Package passengers have only a highly priced buffet option - the breakfast costs Rs. 70 for a serving of Idly, Vada and Pongal, along with Tea or Coffee. It was terribly hot inside the restaurant and I quickly finished my food and walked out of the hotel. The guide was standing outside the hotel, and asked all of us to wait outside till he gets a bus for us. About 5 APSRTC Sapthagiri Express buses were parked outside already. Soon the guide announced all the passengers of Service #41 (our bus) to get into "5001" - that was AP-03-Z-5001, and APSRTC Sapthagiri Express bus from Alipiri depot. Soon after we got into the bus, the guide announced that all of us would get two free laddoos per pilgrim. He informed that he'd get extra laddoos if anyone wanted, and took orders.

We started off at 0641hrs - only the 17 package passengers and the guide were on board. I was expecting the driver to enter into the bus station and pick-up passengers - but that did not happen. We directly headed towards Alipiri - the bus stopped at Balaji Bus Station at 0652hrs - the guide quickly got the ticket for this bus, and came back. Some other passengers got into the bus now, and their tickets were checked by the dispatcher, and we got moving from there at 0656hrs. After this, the bus stopped at the checkpost at the foothills. All passengers were asked to get off the bus and undergo security check. In the meantime, the bus was also checked. It took about 15 minutes for all this - after that all the passengers got back, and we started off. Then started a journey - one I'd always cherish in my life - the driver was amazingly skilled - he took the TATA 1512 bus up the ghats all through in 3rd & 4th Gears! He maintained pace throughout, and didn't have to downshift at all. He just slows down at curves, and then picks up again. There were some 3-4 hairpin bends in the route. We were dropped off at Ram Bageecha Bus Station in Tirumala at 0750hrs - less than an hour after we started from Tirupathi - a distance of about 26 kms.
The Ram Bageecha Bus Station in Tirumala. This is where all the Tirumala-Tirupathi Shuttle buses leave from.
Now the guide took us to the shopping complex next to the bus station, and asked all of us to leave our footwear and baggage at a particular shop. Then he escorted us to the Vaikundam Queue complex - and asked us to wait at a place where the Sudarshanam queue begins. We had to wait until the Guide got our Sheegra Darshan entry tickets - around 0835hrs, the guide came with "Special Entry" slips - the guide asked all of us to keep the package tickets and the entry slips together. Pilgrims coming through package tours of state run Tourism Development Corporations were allowed in after verifying the package tickets - they did not bother verifying the darshan tickets at all! We were permitted straight into Vaikundam Queue Complex-I along with other Sheegra Darshan ticket holders. It was pushing all around, and people just keep pushing others. There is a security check and frisking right after we entered VQC-I, and then again as we neared Padikavali Maha Dwara. As we neared the main temple, the chants of Govinda Govinda got louder and the atmosphere became holier. I had an amazing darshan and felt really blessed - those few seconds of seeing the Lord were the most cherished in my life. One tends to forget all the pushing around and hardships we face as soon as we see Lord. I walked out (or was rather pushed out) with a very light heart, feeling blessed and excitement.

I was out of the temple at 1000hrs! Rush was light on that day - and the package was well organised. We had to wait for a very long time for some passengers in our group to turn up. The guide was getting a bit impatient, but kept his cools throughout. In the meantime, the guide distributed the laddoos to all the people waiting there. The missing members came back at 1100 (the rest of the group had assembled by 1030hrs itself!) - the guide rushed us to a bus which was at the front of the queue. The bus for the downhill ride was AP29-Z-24, from Alipiri Depot. The bus started at 1124 hrs - this driver too seemed like an expert. The downhill route is different from the one used to go uphill - the down hill route has around 40 hairpin bends. The bus dropped us near Balaji Bus Station at around 1209hrs. While in the bus, the guide had called the driver of our bus - but there was some confusion. There was no sight of our bus even after 5 minutes of us waiting there. Finally the bus turned up at 1227hrs - boarding was real quick - all of us were inside the bus in just two minutes, and the bus got moving at 1229hrs. The guide quickly announced that his duty was over and he was getting off here - he personally shook hands with all the passengers and got off the bus - he refused to accept any tips when one passenger offered some money. The bus finally too the Alipiri bypass road towards the highway.

I slept off soon after the bus entered the highway - I had hardly slept the previous night. I also contracted a bad pain on my left great toe - I was limping through the day, and it left me terribly tired. All the passengers were woken up by the crew as we pulled into a hotel for Lunch - it was a dry place with no habitation anywhere in sight. I understood that we were at an APTDC unit for lunch - there was a small hill behind with a temple on top. The time now was 1335hrs. The lunch was again a Buffet (forgot the price) - but they were serving the food like an A La Carte. The food was the regular Andhra meal. The meal was fairly tasty and the price wasn't too high. After lunch, I spoke to the driver and understood that we were at a place called Puligundu on the outskirts of Chittoor (Read more about the place here). The driver was all excited as he explained about the place - really liked that attitude. We started off at 1409hrs.
... when we stopped at Puligundu for lunch.
I slept off again. I vaguely remember the bus stopping at a level cross somewhere on the way - I continued sleeping. I was woken up again as the bus stopped for another break. The time was 1548hrs now - we were at another APTDC unit - Hotel Pavithra Greenland in Palmaner. It was too early to have tea - so I just spent time roaming (rather, limping) outside the bus - the washroom wasn't in great shape, and the items were overpriced. They were charging as much as 50% extra on MRP. I got back to the bus when I saw the driver going towards the bus. Some other package operators like Seabird, Manish, SRS were also at the same place.We started off at 1603hrs. I did not try sleeping now - instead watched a movie on my phone. I did not notice where were until I realised that we were near KR Puram! We were dropped off at Tin Factory bus stop at 1831hrs - more than 6 hours after we started from Tirupathi. On the outbound the same distance had taken only around 4 hours!

End notes: The package was really well organised - passengers using TDC packages get special benefits and they do not spend a lot of time in the queue. Being run by the government ensures that you travel with safe crew and the buses move across borders seamlessly. The bus had two drivers - the guys who drove from Bangalore to Tirupathi got down there, and another pair took over for the return journey. The second driver gets two seats all for himself to stretch across and sleep. The bus was not in great shape - the suspension made a lot of noise and the front windshield was cracked. The interiors were clean and well maintained. They provided full sized blankets to all passengers. The guide was well behaved - he spoke fluently in Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and Hindi. He did manage well with English as well. The only flaw I felt with the entire package was that the food breaks weren't great - the breakfast was a mess, there were no options at lunch, the evening tea was too early and food was overpriced. The KSTDC package scores better here, I guess.

Blanket: Yes
Water: No
Charging Point: No
Entertainment: Available, but not used.

Overall ratings: 4/5 (they lose on food breaks)

I am surely heading to Tirupati again - will surely try KSTDC next time. Some bus fanning pics of this trip can be seen here.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

In a train after a very long time..

Of late, the thoughts that comes to my mind when I consider traveling by train are stinking toilets, endless waits at the railway station, unclean seats and roaches running all-over. My last few train rides were not memorable by any yardstick. The last ride (in March this year), had me getting off the train red-eyed - the flat wheel, plus some odd sounds coming from the wheelset, and a horrible delay had all put me off. I had to book on a train once again because my parents were accompanying me, and there were no other comfortable (and feasible) alternatives. This was a 4 hour journey within Kerala. The train chosen this time was Ernad Express, which runs from Nagercoil to Mangalore, and I was to travel from Thrissur to Kannur. Second Sitting was never an option, and hence AC Chair Car was chosen.

The D-Day: June 21, 2014
Like before any journey, I hardly slept that night. It was raining fairly well in my hometown. I woke up well on time. The four-wheeled Autorickshaw - a TATA Magic Iris - was at our at the appointed time. This was my first ride in one of these four-wheeled Auto Taxi (as they are called in Kerala). The seat was somewhat similar to a Piaggio Ape, but the leg space was much better. It rained quite heavily as we travelled towards the railway station. Thankfully the rain stopped by the time we got off at the railway station.

The LED display at the entrance said that our coach (C1) would be the 12th, and that the train would arrive on Platform 2. After getting a newspaper and some magazines, we headed to the platform. The platform was crowded as usual - but we could get a place to sit. Sometime after we reached, an announcement was made on the PA system that the train would arrive 30 minutes late. In the meantime, my dad found that there was a news in the newspaper that trains would be regulated somewhere between Ernakulam and Aluva to facilitate some metro related work. If only we had read this earlier!

The train finally pulled in at 1007hrs, some 32 minutes late. It was an Erode WAP4 (#22549) that did the honours. Getting into our coach was a bit troublesome - a lot of people crowded the entrance, and it was quite difficult to get in with the luggage. Thankfully, the overhead luggage racks above our seats were empty - so all the baggage went there. The train started at 1010hrs. The TTE came quickly to check tickets, and he did not bother checking the m-ticket - he took a quick look at the ID proof and marked us present on the chart. The AC was quite cold, and it was raining quite heavily outside. I spent most of my time reading the newspaper and playing some game on my phone. We kept crossing trains at frequent intervals. I was quite intrigued by the fact that no vendors turned up anytime during the journey - neither vendors selling water nor any eatables. The train finally reached Shoranur at 1053hrs.

I was surprised that there were no vendors on the platform either! The lone tea-stall outside our coach was crowded heavily. It was still raining, and I had no chance of witnessing a loco change. The coach jerked sometime later, confirming that the new loco had taken charge. We started moving again at 1105hrs. The journey was getting too boring already. It kept raining on-and-off, and this meant I couldn't door-plate at all. Ernad Express is a glorified passenger train and it kept stopping very often. I was getting bored by the moment, and I spent most of my time reading the magazine that I had stocked and also playing some games on the phone.

I was fairly hungry and awaited reaching Kozhikode. We pulled into Kozhikode station at 1255hrs - as if waiting to pounce out, I was at the door. I was desperately hungry and wanted to grab my lunch. There were a lot of people to get off from our coach, and hence had to wait to bit to get on to the platform. Once on the platform, I was shocked to see that there were no stalls anywhere close to the coach! There was one vendor nearby, but he had only non-vegetarian food. I searched for another vendor - found one quickly. He too had predominantly non-veg food only. Left with no options, I decided to buy the sole veg product that was available with him - Vegetarian Biriyani.

The Biriyani - a very typical railway biriyani, rich in oil with too little vegetables anywhere - was palatable to an extent. The accompaniment was a very minute quantity of salad (raitha) and some pickle. We left Kozhikode at 1259. I was preoccupied with eating the biriyani as the train made its way out of Kozhikode. The coach was too cold, and I was not very comfortable with the temperature inside the coach. I was back with my phone, playing some games. The string of stops continued after Kozhikode - I felt the numbers reduced as compared to before Kozhikode. We reached Thalassery at 1407hrs - by now I had a sigh of relief that the journey was about to finish (a sharp contrast with the past when I used to get sad as my destination neared). The train stopped at Kannur home-signal at 1429hrs - I was now sure that we were waiting for the Kannur-Ernakulam Intercity express to vacate the platform for us.

After a long wait, a Golden Rock deemer crawled past my train with the Intercity express to Ernakulam. We finally moved forward and stopped at Kannur station, at 1443hrs - some 23 minutes late. I happily got off the train and rushed towards the exit. Then a quick car ride to the destination.

The cleanliness of the coach (WGSCZAC 94152 based at Mangalore) left a lot to be desired. The seats were rock hard - it was tough sitting for that long on that kind of a seat. Having been used to the good angle of recline in buses, I found the seats too uncomfortable for long journeys. The coach was crowded all the time - all the seats were full throughout, and there were lots of people occupying the gangway in the hope of getting a seat any one of the many stops en route. All through the journey, my belief there is a lot of scope for intra-state premium buses just got underlined. I'd love to use buses more often, and this journey just made my belief stronger. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

A quick trip to Thrissur on Kerala RTC's Ernakulam Volvo Multiaxle

This was not exactly an unplanned trip - but can still be called one. I had this in mind that I'd head home on 19th June from Bangalore. I had already applied for leave. As the date came closer, I remained undecided on which bus to take? I had this soft-corner for Kerala RTC, but wanted to try a particular private operator as well. As I remained confused, I decided to wait till the D-Day and then take the call. A day before the trip, a particular afternoon departing service of Kerala RTC was restored - I wanted to try that service. But the risk of heavy rains and night, and the prospect of having to travel from Thrissur to my hometown in an autorickshaw in heavy rains did not look inviting. I junked that plan. 

June 19, 2014:
My initial plan was to head to Satellite Bus Station in the afternoon, and get into one of the four Volvo departing from Bangalore towards Thrissur. But the plan changed in the morning and I had a reason to return back home after work. I was at home by around 1300hrs - I still hadn't decided which bus to take. By the time I finished by work, it was already 1730hrs. Now it was impossible for me to reach Satellite Bus station comfortably and still have some choice. I quickly logged on to Kerala RTC's Saarathy portal, and booked a ticket for the 20.00hrs Bangalore-Ernakulam AC Multi-Axle service. I selected Seat #9 this time for a change. The last time I booked online for the same bus, but in the opposite direction. I selected Bommanahalli as my pick-up point and saved the PDF on my phone. 

Like everytime, this time too I left home a bit late. I was 2015hrs already as I stepped out of home. My brother was dropping me at Bommanahalli, thankfully - since autos are unpredictable at that hour. I was dropped at Bommanahalli junction at 2035hrs. Kerala RTC's unique reservation portal does not mention pick-up times in its tickets! The bus leaves Satellite BS at 2000hrs - so I expected it to reach Bommanahalli after 2045hrs. In the meantime, the Bangalore-Thrissur deluxe, which leaves at 1930hrs rolled in to the bus stop. I called up a known person in KSRTC who confirmed at the bus left on time, and he informed that he has told the conductor about the Bommanahalli pick-up (He did not know that I was travelling, but based on the chart, just asked the conductor not to take BETL). The bus rolled into Bommanahalli bus stop at 2100hrs - he slowly crawled in blowing the horn in short bursts. I was  the only person getting in from there - the conductor just confirmed my seat number and let me in. He came to my seat a bit later and checked the PDF and verified the ID proof. There were about 9 passengers in the bus including me - too bad for a Thursday! Poor marketing, and lack of initiatives from the staff to attract some passengers!
The bus: RS782, KL-15-A-280, of Ernakulam depot. (Image from archives)
The driver continued crawling - he was sticking to the middle lane (of the three lanes) and maintaining about 60~65kmph. The bus pulled into Electronic City bus stop, although there were no scheduled pick-ups.  A passenger came running and asked for a Thrissur ticket - he was taken in, and we left at 2112hrs. After Electronic City, the driver picked pace quite well. I moved from my booked seat to a seat at the back - #29. No movie was played - the conductor said there was some problem with the player/disc and the movie got switched off abruptly and refuses to start. Well! No problems! I switched on a movie on my phone and remained glued to that. 

Although I had dinner from home, I was feeling a bit hungry as the bus proceeded towards Salem. The particular service has a dinner break - and I was eagerly waiting for that. We passed by the normal places where the bus could stop - like Kamat, Dhaba, A2B @ Shoolagiri. We even passed Saravana Bhavan near Krishnagiri. The bus finally pulled into the worst place on the route - the even infamous Hotel Uthaiya (now renamed as Nandha Palace or Nandini Place - or something like that), at 2223hrs. I got off the bus - the place where we stopped killed all my hunger. I just got a packet of peanuts and roamed around for some time. I struck a conversation with the person who walked in at Electronic City - he did not have great remarks about the service. Major complaints being crew attitude, lack of blankets, etc. We started off after break at 2248hrs. 

The driving was quite stable - he was interested in maintaining stable speeds than the regular spiky style of Kerala RTC crew. Except Trucks and TNSTC/SETC buses, all the other vehicles on the road seemed faster than us. A couple of private Volvo sidelined us, while some Karnataka RTC buses kept pace with us. The driver had a tendency to choose the longest and slowest queues at toll gates. His lane changes were well signalled. I slept intermittently - but kept waking up very often. I woke up suddenly when the bus crashed into a bad patch - this signalled that we were past Chengampally. There were some diversions due to an accident on the road - and the diverted lane (service lane) was not in the best shape. Lots of potholes, and rough patches - the driver banged the brakes quite a few times. I slept off after sometime, and woke up just as the bus stopped outside Gandhipuram SETC Bus station (0315hrs) - I am not sure if anyone got off, but nobody got in for sure. I liked this attitude of trying to get in some seats by entering the town. We stopped again outside Ukkadam Bus station (0324hrs). 

I slept off soon after we left Ukkadam. This time it was quite continuous. I woke up hearing the sound of rain - it was lashing the windows. We were in Kerala already by then - infact, we were running through Walayar at that time. I dozed off again, and woke in just as the bus was entering Palakkad bus station (0432hrs). I guess the rain delayed us a bit. The timing till Coimbatore seemed good - we took about 6h15m including 25 minutes for dinner. The bus parked in Palakkad BS for some time - I guess they tried getting some passengers. We left the bus station at 0439hrs. The diversions from Palakkad Bus Station to get back into the highway continues to be confusing - the driver lost way somewhere, and the bus had to turn around on a very narrow road. All this caused quite some delay. I slept off again after the bus entered the highway. It was raining even then. I had another nice sleep - waking up just as we turn off the highway from Mannuthy. I was finally dropped outside Sakthan Bus Station, at 0610hrs. The stretch from Palakkad to Thrissur ended up taking 1h31m - quite high for a Volvo - We had actually entered the highway from Palakkad town at 0505 or so. I was quite drowsy as I walked down to the platform from where KSRTC buses to Kodungallur leave, and I found RNC170 waiting for me - this is the bus that ferries me from Thrissur to my home almost every time I come home. 

End Notes: The bus, KL-15-A-280 (RS782) of Ernakulam depot, had some 27K kms on the odo. The speed governor in the bus seems to have been set to speeds higher than 80kmph now. The driving was good - except the brake show near Perundurai (due to diversions, abrupt road joints), the ride was very smooth. He maintained constant speeds wherever possible. The AC was set to comfortable settings - Blanket is still not provided. The crew were not very eager to get more passengers - this is where a major change in attitude is required. The running time was quite high - 9h10m for 454kms is certainly on the higher side - even discounting 25 minutes for Dinner, I feel its high. Probably I'll give the driver benefit of doubt because it rained quite hard. But interestingly, the scheduled arrival time at Thrissur is 0630, and we were about 20 minutes before time!

Blanket: No
Water: No
Charging Point: Yes (Left "ON" throughout)
Entertainment: Available, but not used.

Maintenance: 4.5/5
Cleanliness: 5/5
Driving: 5/5
Crew behaviour: 4.5/5
Punctuality: 5/5

Overall: 4.5/5

Will I take this service again? Sure. Even with the delay, I'll surely love to take this service again.