After the end of our week long stay in Kohima, our plan was to move to Imphal by road (NH39, 140 kms). After completion of the Manipur trip, we were to travel to Aizawl ( for Mizoram trip) by road. The continuation of Kohima-Imphal road blockade and the resultant problems in Manipur made us to skip our Manipur trip and to think of alternative options of travelling to Mizoram and Tripura. KS suggested that we cover Dimapur-Lumding-Silchar by train, stay overnight at Silchar and depart for Aizawl ( or Agartlala to be decided later) by early morning bus or share Sumo. The Lumding-Silchar route was described as one of the most scenic journeys on Indian railways.
There are two Express trains which runs from Lumding for Silchar on a meter gauge track - Barak Valley Express which is a day train and Cachar Express, an overnight train. Although Cachar Express would have suited us the best in terms of timing ( no need to stay overnight at Lumding) and the comfort ( having one 2AC sleeper coach), we decided to travel by Barak Valley Express to enjoyed the scenic beauty of this route during the day time. A Google search on Lumding-Silchar route gave us some discouraging news. This route was the frequent target of militant groups based in Cachar and North Cachar Hill districts (now renamed as Dima Hasao district). Lumding Division of North-East Frontier Railway faced the highest incidences of militant attacks during the last 3-4 years. The latest incidence was in October 2011 when a train driver and his assistant driver were kidnapped by the militants for ransom. Train services on this route were frequently suspended after such incidences. Nonetheless, we made reservation for Barak Valley Express as an option to be exercised after ascertaining the ground realities. After the completion of our week long stay in Kohima, we took a share taxi to Dimapur (75 kms, Rs.200/- per head) and boarded the afternoon Jorhat-Guwahati Jan Shatabdi Express for Lumding. After reaching Lumding, we were happy to know that trains to Silchar had been running normally.
After staying overnight in Lumding ( Hotel Global, 1 km from the station @ Rs.1500/- double bedded room with AC, TV , clean linen, clean bathroom and the excellent home made Bengali food for dinner), we arrived at Lumding railway station on a pre-booked auto early morning to catch Barak Valley Express scheduled to depart at 06.15 hours. The train was already stabled on the platform, perhaps in the last night itself when it arrived from Silchar. The coaches looked very old. Our sleeper coach was in a very pathetic condition. The water from the storage tank located above the toilet was heavily leaking making coach floor wet. Many of the coach’s lights were not working properly. Some electrical wires were hanging and in some cases, without insulation. In my view, our coach ( and probably other coaches of the train too) was ‘sick’ in the railway’s terminology which meant that the coach was not fit for a normal train journey. The train’s conductor told us that though the scheduled time of arrival at Silchar was 18.45 hours, this train was always late in reaching the destination. Calling this train as an express train was a misnomer. As per railway schedule, it stops all the 30 railway stations on the way and takes more than 12 hours to cover a distance of 215 kms.
The train left Lumding Junction sharp at 06.15 hours as scheduled, auguring well for our hope that the train would reach Silchar with a minimum delay. A Silchar based Bengali family of four with a baby was sharing the six berth cubicle with us. We were happy that we both had got window seats to get a ring side view of the passing landscape. But as it often happens in train journeys, they requested us to allow them to occupy our window seats so that his mother and his wife could help in taking care of the baby. We agreed for forgoing one of our window seats for them. They gave us a good company till our final destination. The elderly woman of the family who used to eat paan (betel leaf) almost every hour reminded me of my mother who also used to eat paan regularly during our umpteen train journeys. All other passengers appeared to be from the seven sister states of North-East.
|Barak Valley Express about to chug out from Lumding Junction. The train left at its scheduled time of departure at 06.15 a.m.|
|An early morning view from our coach of the landscape not far away from Lumding|
|Broad gauge line under construction on Lumding-Silchar section. The braod gauge line is expected to be completed sometime in 2014.|
|Bamboos kept ready for loading on a goods train.|
|Apart from hilly terrain, numerous sharp curves like this one on the Lumding-Silchar route restricts the train speed and therefore this train takes over 12 hours to cover just 215 kms of the journey.|
|Barak Valley Express coming out from one of 37 tunnels. |
The general compartments of the train were now crowded and some passengers entered our reserve compartment with unimaginable luggage – gunny bags filled with piglets and even they may contain dogs and fox kids as one fellow passenger told me. Another passenger entered the compartment with a big log door frame which he stacked near the toilets. Stacks of bamboos hanged outside most of the compartments. The Bengali family sharing the berths with us ensured that none of such passengers would crowd our bay.
When the train reached Maibang railway station, surprisingly, no tea/coffee vendors had come in our compartment. So we had puri-bhaji and tea from one of the platform vendors. The puri-bhaji was tasty and KS had one more helping of the same. Not satisfied, we had a few of big slices of pineapple seasoned with chilli powder and salt at the next station. Our eating spree ended with one big wild banana each at Lower Haflong station and that sealed our appetite for the rest of the day.
As our train was on its way to Lower Haflong station, the terrain gradually became hilly with dense forest on both sides of the track. At many places The train track had sharp curves and upward sloping gradients. At some places, the boundaries of the forest were so close to the track that we could touch the tree stems from our window seat. The train passed through many lanky bridges over the streams that seem to originate from the surrounding hills. The frequency of train passing through tunnels also increased. All these factors resulted in train running at a slow speed, some time as low as 10 kms per hour as we saw the board showing the speed restriction. The slow speed of the train gave us more time to enjoy the nature and beautiful sceneries. The forest cover looked green and dense all over the places and there were many streams flowing from the hill side though it had not rained here for a long time. The scene reminded me of my train journeys to Goa on the Konkan Railway.
|A hill made up of many layers of rock formations on Lumding-Silchar route.|
|There are numerous rail bridges over the streams such as this one on Lumding-Silchar route.|
|Barak Valley Express crossing one of numerous rail bridges over streams. The bridge under construction (on the right side) is meant for laying broad gauge line.|
|One of 37 tunnels through which Barak Valley Express has to pass thorough before reaching its destination.|
Lower Haflong station with many vendors, mostly women, selling vegetables, fruits and other household items, looked more as a crowded bazaar than the railway station. From the platform, we could see Haflong Hill, the only hill station in Assam and the head quarters of North Cachar Hill district ( now renamed as Dima Hasao district), located on a mountain top, about 5 kms from Lower Haflong railway station. From here onwards, the route was a hardcore hilly terrain, with many tunnels, bridges and sharp curves which meant slow train speed. Also, the route passes through one of the most sensitive areas in terms of militancy. With the depleted conditions of most of the coaches and the old diesel engine which looked more like a steam engine if the quantum of smoke it emanated was of any indication, the train may not be fit to run on its normal speed. I could now appreciate as to why the train takes more than 12 hours to cover a distance of 215 kms from Lumding to Silchar.
The railway has to run the passenger and freight trains on this route as it is virtually a life line for the inhabitants of lower Assam, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura. Most of the essential commodities are transported to these states through this route. The other option – Limding-Silchar road has been in bad shape for years and locals say that the train is not only economical but also it is comfortable mode to travel.
|Lower Haflong railway station. The crowd on the platform is more of sellers than the passengers.|
|Virtually all railway stations on this route are mini bazars where locals sells fruits, vegetables and other household items. This one is the scene on Lower Haflong railway station.|
|Haflong hill station (on the top of the mountain) seen from Barak Valley Express.|
|A close of a few houses in Haflong|
As the train left Lower Haflong, the vegetation became thick. There were bamboo trees and wild banana plantations everywhere with the bushy type creepers all along the periphery of the forest on the right side of the track with Barak river on the left side. A lot of dust cloud was seen on the other side of Barak river probably emanating from the road construction work going on for four lanes east-west corridor. There was no trace of the work relating to laying broad gauge line until we reach close to probably Badarkhal after which had resumed. First I thought that due to hill section, the work had not been undertaken so far. But now it appears that the proposed broad gauge line will bypass the most scenic section of the existing meter gauge line by a chord line. It will be a good idea if the railway authorities retain the meter gauge line between Lower Haflong and Bandarkhal and run tourist trains in the season for the visitors to enjoy the scenic beauty of the hill track.
Although our train was now moving into sensitive areas, there were no armed police escorts in the train. However, a small contingent of armed police was present in all the railway stations. I understand that there are armed police contingents regularly patrolling the vicinity of the tracks and that train engines operating on this routes are all bullet proof. In fact, the sensitive part of the journey was the most scenic with thick forests, high hills and numerous streams flowing from the hills. The clear blue sky gave a ting of a bluish colour to the mountain tops. It was unfortunate that this beautiful place was also the perfect place for militants to plan for a ambush and hide. Except at Jatinga stations, I did not notice inhabitations near the railway stations in the hill section of this route except a few houses of railway staff.
Our train reached Jatinga station in the late afternoon. As far as my memory goes, this was the only railway station in the hill section were village was close to the station. The village was perched on a high hill and looked beautiful with well laid down houses in the midst of thick vegetation. Our train stopped here for a long time as an incoming goods train was to pass. So we had time to wander on the platform. There were not many vendors on the platform nor the passengers to board the train. In fact, I feel that locals come to the railway stations just before the trains approach to have some diversion from their otherwise mundane day to day activities. Jatinga is known for the mass suicide by flock of birds every September by plunging into the fire lit by villagers.
|Jatinga railway station. The place is famous for flocks of birds committing mass suicides during every September by plunging into the fire.|
|Jatinga village seen from the railway station.|
|A close up of Jatinga village.|
The landscape of our train journey beyond Jatinga remained, more or less, the same – dense bamboo and wild plantations forest close to the track, high mountains, journey through number of tunnels and Barak river on to our left. Although the weather was pleasant throughout the day, I was tired of sitting in the train as we have already spent more than 10 hours in the train without getting any chance to take some rest ‘horizontally’. Also, the sun was about to set in and it would soon be getting dark. So there was not much motivation left to be in the train and I was now eager to reach our destination as early as possible.
Adding to our misery was the news about eruption of violence in Silchar due to kidnapping of a doctor and the imposition of curfew in the whole town. One of the fellow passengers suggested us to get down at Badarpur Junction, our next station and take the next day’s early afternoon passenger train to Agartala. The idea was worth considering but soon we came to know that there was some tension in Badarpur town as well due to Silchar incidence. We decided to stick to our earlier plan. In worst case scenario, we could spend the night at Silchar railway station either in the retiring room or in the waiting room.
Our discussion was interrupted by a vendor in our compartment selling Jaal Moori ( puffed rice mixed with onion and seasoned with mustard oil and masala powder). It transpired that KS was very fond of this snack which he used to eat regularly during his Kolkatta days. I was not impressed by this snack when he told me that it was seasoned with mustard oil. A small helping from KS's plate made me realised that this snack was indeed yummy and it was one of my favourite evening snacks when my mother used to prepared as an accompaniment to our evening coffee. The difference between Jaal Moori and our puffed rice snack was that we used coconut oil and sambhar powder for seasoning.
|After Lower Haflong, the train route passes through the dense forest on one side and the Barak valley on the other side. The forest consists predominantly pf bamboo trees and wild banana plantations.|
|Bamboo stacks are being kept ready to be loaded on an incoming passenger train at Mailong Disa station|
|This is how bamboo stacks are being loaded on a passenger train.|
When we reached Badarpur Junction, it was 6.15 p.m. and the train was already late by 1:30 hours. Here, almost half of the train passengers alighted probably after hearing the news of curfew in Silchar. There was an official halt of 25 minutes here as the train engine was to be detached from the front side and attached to the back side of the rake for taking diversion to Silchar. The train started from Badarpur Junction at 6.45 p.m. for a 30 kms of journey to Silchar. The train was running smoothly until it reached the outer signal of Katakhal Junction, two station before Silchar. Here the train was stranded for nearly one hour without any way to know as to the reason. It was cold and the dim light inside the compartment gave a depressing feeling. The bright moonlight outside, however, created some heavenly atmosphere. It was only when one train from the opposite direction came on a loop line that our train started. We reached Silchar at 09.30 p.m., nearly 3 hours late from the schedule time of arrival. Having spent nearly 15 hours in the train, we needed a comfortable night stay in a good hotel and we stayed in Hotel Borail View, stated to be the best hotel in Silchar (Rs.1500/- double bedded AC room) .
|Badarpur Junction. From here one meter gauge track goes to Silchar and another goes to Agartala. This picture was taken while travelling on Silchar-Agartala passenger.|
|We reached Silchar 09.30 p.m., nearly 3 hours late from the schedule time This picture of Silchar railway station was taken on the next morning. |
I now realised that after a gap of more than 30 years, I have travelled by a meter gauge train, the Barak Valley Express. My last meter gauge train journey was in December 1980 by Vaighai Express from Egmore to Madurai. The journey on Barak Valley Express relived me of the train journeys of my younger days when I used to get down at every station wherever the train halted, to walk on the platform and get to know many things happening around. Though as per schedule, Barak Valley Express was supposed to stop at all stations just for a minute except at Badarpur Junction where official stoppage was for 25 minutes, the train stopped for much longer period at all the stations and that gave us more than enough time to take a round on the platform and make interesting observations. Even the slow speed of the train was a blessing in disguise as it gave us more time to watch the beautiful scenes and landscapes.
Barak Valley Express have all unreserved II class general coaches except one sleeper coach which can be reserved through PRS. A window seat will give the passenger a ring side view of landscape and scenery from the train. Window seats of unreserved coaches get occupied as soon as the train is stabled on the platform. Reservation of berths in the Sleeper coach well in advance is a better option for improving the chance of getting window seats and for relatively comfortable travel.
As per the feed back I got from many regular travellers, Barak Valley Express is regularly late, some time as many hours late as 4-5 hours. Furthermore, the train services on Lumding-Silchar section get suspended whenever any militant ambush happens on the route.
There is no pantry car attached to the train but the food items like puri-bhaji, buns (soft bread), boiled eggs, jaal moori ( puffed rice) and fruits like oranges, pineapples and bananas will be available on most of the stations en route. It is advisable to carry mineral water bottles as they were not available on the stations nor the cold drinks during the time we travelled.
For those for whom the time is not a constraint and are wary of travelling for the whole day, they can break journey at Lower Haflong station. Haflong Hill is about 5 kms from the station and it is the only hill station in Assam. They can board the same train the next day. The most beautiful and enchanting scenery on this route is between Lower Haflong and Bandarkhal stations.