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.