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India's longest train journey

Last updated on: December 5, 2011 14:41 IST

India's longest train journey

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Subir Roy

The placid calm of the suburban early morning was suddenly broken when I spotted the news item: India is to get its longest-running train, the Vivek Express, from Dibrugarh in Assam to Kanyakumari.

Its journey would take 83 hours or three-and-a-half days - and take in 54 stations in eight states. Immediately, my imagination was afire.

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Image: Vivek Express.

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True, the Moscow-Vladivostok trans-Siberian rail journey, the longest in the world, covers over twice the distance.

But at nearly 4,300 km, every time this train sets out, it will begin a virtually trans-continental expedition, one that in geographical and cultural variety can equal any other such worldwide.

What I would give to be on that train, sitting next to the window, camera dangling from my neck, thanking my lucky stars that, in the age of digital photography, you do not have to go broke buying film and developing prints to record all the flabbergasting images!

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Image: Moscow-Vladivostok trans-Siberian rail.

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OK, the loos would be an issue. But that would be a small inconvenience to bear for the chance to be on a transcontinental expedition without having to bother about visas and foreign exchange.

The news set off three triggers in my mind - the love of travel, the romance of rail journeys and the sampling of Incredible India.

I could just close my eyes and see it all, starting from Dibrugarh, right at the top of Upper Assam.
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Image: Scenic views.

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I did not know the exact lines that would be traversed - but the landmark stations would betoken their surrounding countryside. So, first - tea gardens carpeting green hills, with tree-lined borders and intermittent forest.

Very quickly Dimapur would tell you that there is a short swing through Nagaland. Then back to Assam and pretty Lumbding - tunnels, forests, and houses atop hillocks.

The plains would mean more undulating green hills in the background and paddy fields in front.

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Image: Tea garden.

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The first big station would be Guwahati, with polyglot passengers and the usual chaos — the life of a big station, and underlining the diversity of the Northeast.

As you enter West Bengal through the gateway that is the town of Alipurduar, you'll see more tea gardens and patches of forests - and young streams just down from the mountains, and maybe the occasional elephant.

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Image: Elephants in Assam.

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In Malda, mango orchards will line either side of the tracks.

You'd touch Kishanganj in Bihar – just to increase the state count, perhaps –  and then a sea change, as you pass Durgapur and Asansol, with the dust and smoke of early-model industrialisation and slow-burning coal fires.

And then, in Bankura and Midnapore, there would be an eerie calm in the forests you're passing, almost warning the train to be gone soon or the Maoists would lay siege to it.

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Image: Kishanganj.

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In Odisha, sometime around your passage of Bhubaneswar and Berhampore, you would probably get a sidelong glimpse of the near-unending waters of the Chilka lake - and feel a tinge of regret that the sea is so near, and yet beyond your reach.

Those lucky enough to have spent their honeymoon decades ago at the beautiful Oberoi hotel at Gopalpur-on-Sea would want to get off right there and then to celebrate youth and an unspoilt coastline, both now vanishing.

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Image: Chilka lake.

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A journey through the heart of India is incomplete without more than one reminder of the spectre of Maoism, first when you pass the recently prominent Jangalmahal region of West Bengal, and then again by the memories jogged loose by Srikakulam, just inside Andhra.

Then, slowly, the train does a massive lateral traverse through the width of peninsular India, taking in both the past glories of Vizianagaram and the modern, stainless-steel industrialisation of Salem in Tamil Nadu.

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Image: Vizianagaram.

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You would sense Kerala as soon as you set foot - wheels - on it near Kochi.

The Western Ghats would mean tunnels and forests, paddy fields and, during or after a heavy monsoon, a sense of being on a bridge with lake-water on either side.

The rubber and coconut trees would vary the green you see, and the backwaters of Kollam would again urge you to get off and abandon the chores and worries of responsible living.

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Image: Kochi backwaters.

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And then Kanyakumari would signal, like a train guard's flag, that the journey's done and land's end is at hand.

The last image would be of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, looking out into the ocean with all the self-confidence a resurgent nation could have.

I know a lot of this is romantic daydreaming. There would for the most part be an endless succession of look-alike dirty stations.

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Image: Vivekananda Rock Memorial.

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The pleasant countryside would be interspersed with dirty, garbage-infested urban areas.

The loos would almost inevitably be so filthy as to be unusable, and the food between indifferent and worse. And eventually the train would most likely arrive horribly late.

But it need not be so. Trains and their loos can be clean.

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Image: Trains can be kept clean.

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Our towns could be garbage-free, so that you eagerly keep looking at them as you pass, instead of waiting for the forest - and pleasantness – to return.

The key stations could, in fact, be turned into assets, every one of them a mini-museum of the area and its cultural footprint.

That would then be a truly fantastic journey through the space - and times - that make up India.



Image: CST station, Mumbai.

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