A trip to Vaishno Devi was long overdue which we decided to perform in end of April 2010. April is hot and schools being closed for summer vacation it wasn’t a good time to go. One of my colleague who belongs on J&K and is a regular visitor to Vaishno Devi dissuaded me from going. However, this being the only slack time available I decided to simply go ahead. I was ambivalent about mode of travel. Should we take flight or go by train? This being peak travel season, availability and reasonable price seemed to be mutually exclusive. Also the trip had to be planned along with a weekend lest we need to take more leaves. Flights were turning out to be costly via Delhi or directly from Mumbai and then overhead of traveling to Mumbai. Spent lot of time searching for any odd combination but nothing worked. Soon, flight was more or less ruled out. On the train front, all trains were wait listed be it from Pune or Delhi. There is a direct train from Pune called Jhelum Express which is convenient and takes one directly to Jammu otherwise there are trains to Delhi at odd times. After trying several combination via Delhi I gave up on regular reservations and banked on Tatkal. However, there was a silver lining in dark clouds which I spotted early. I checked the IRCTC holiday packages (www.railtourismindia.com) for Vaishno Devi from Delhi and unbelievably reservation was available for one of the Thursdays. So, now choice boiled down to either book Tatkal in Jhelum Express directly to Jammu or take odd train to Delhi along with IRCTC package. However when I tried booking in Tatkal on the day waking up a little early than 8AM the IRCTC site was overwhelmed. I reached up to payment page but transaction never returned success. After trying for couple of days simply gave up. Now decisively it had to be through IRCTC package booked for next Thursday or not. Now getting to Delhi was still open. The odd train which was the only option was Karnataka Sampark Kranti Express. The train comes from Bangalore up to Delhi and has limited quota from Pune for Delhi. Wife had already sounded warning that it better had to be Air Conditioned for such a long day journey. At this time I decided to try my luck with one of the contacts in Railways. I did not hope much but I was thrilled to see the confirmation on website a day before we were supposed to travel. I rushed home and we packed happily. I made the return reservation from Delhi to Pune by Duronto Express deliberately for Monday 11 AM which probably would be the most unpopular time still reservation was wait listed. That too was supposed to be taken care of but that worry was for later.
The IRCTC package was mere around Rs. 1300 for a person on double occupancy basis including return ticket to Jammu by Sleeper accommodation in Uttar Sampark Kranti train, to and fro bus transfer to Katra, hotel in Katra and drop & pickup up to Banganga. This was value for money, no frills but less hassles as well. So we were all set for one of the most rail intensive trips we had done. 5 trains, 4 nights in trains out of 6 days of travel. This is the overall travel we did:
- Pune – Hazrat Nizamuddin by Karnataka Sampark Kranti
- New Delhi – Jammu by Uttar Sampark Kranti
- Jammu – Ambala Cantt by Uttar Sampark Kranti
- Ambala – Chandigarh by bus
- Chandigarh – New Delhi by Kalka Shatabdi
- Hazrat Nizamuddin – Pune by Duronto Express
Pune to Hazrat Nizamuddin was slow due to single line route from Pune via Daund, Manmad, Bhusawal etc. The train reached late in Nizamuddin by two hours. We had packed all meals of the day breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks, so did not have to order from outside. Journey was comfortable in AC three tier. For New Delhi to Jammu travel, we arrived an hour early to collect the train tickets and itinerary from IRCTC representatives. They were very helpful but probably they can do a bit more clinical by putting a temporary booth on platform and more professional attitude. However, there were no hassles. There we ate the “Janta Khana” which is 6 “pooris” and “aloo subzi” for Rs. 10/- along with “masala” corn and juice. IRCTC has really ushered catering on stations what I can recall from the past. The coach got crowded with all sorts of unreserved passengers including army men inconveniencing the reserved passengers. They all congregated around the door, toilet and slept even on the vestibule (the passage connecting two coaches). Anyways, since the journey was only overnight so it was OK. I pointed this to one of the patrolling policeman, who replied with a helplessness citing that reserved passengers don’t utter anything. I am not sure how can reserved passengers without authority ask unreserved passengers to push over. Anyways, the train was really fast and kept time throughout.
At Jammu station, we were asked to come to bus-stand outside where local buses were ready to go to Katra. IRCTC probably chooses any one bus on time and ask passengers to board. The bus was manned by an irritating conductor who was out to ensure that he is not shortchanged. He argued with almost all the groups in the bus including us. Not sure why was he so pissed. I was having pity on him and was a sour start of the tour. Anyways, our spirits were brightened when we checked into the hotel. It was a decent double occupancy room with running hot water and working TV etc. We were expecting some dormitory or shabby accommodation thinking how would IRCTC make money but room was above expectation. After freshening up and gorging on “paranthas”, we set out for the visit. We had befriended one family from Delhi and we got common “Yatra” ticket. They were veterans of Vaishno Devi visiting it every year so they guided us very well and we did not have to ask around much.
We were dropped up to Ban Ganga by hotel which was also included in the package. We then started on foot.
First few kilometers had all the shops like eateries, drinkeries, selling prasad and other paraphernalia. The sun was out full but heat was not intense and we walked without much discomfort. The entire Katra town was visible from the path. Also noticed its upcoming railway station a bit away from the town.
After few kilometers newly built plain road started where ponies are not allowed. This stretch was leisurely walk without much incline. We took regular breaks. For food we had staple diet of this region, Rajma-Chawal. It was tasty and economical for Rs. 25 per plate. Here I would like to praise Shri Viashno Devi Shrine Board for impeccable facilities provided to devotees. There were regular water fountains, eateries, shelters and above all cleanliness. It is their far sightedness that they provided water to disallow mineral water and other not allowed hawkers to setup their shop. Otherwise this place would have been a pile of rubbish. The other services like accomodation and helicopter service are also supposed to be good.
At around 5 PM in the evening we reached Bhavan. There were enough facilities of bathing and locker. Soon we were in the queue for Darshan. To relief of our aching soles, we did not have to stand in queue for long and Bhavan was almost empty. We walked up to the coveted tunnel in the sanctum-sanctorum and had good 10-15 seconds in front of the deity!! There was no rushing or pushing. We had probably the best Darshan according to our companions who come here every year. After that we sat in the precincts outside for full 5 minutes savoring the peaks around. It was a beautiful sight alas we could not capture it on camera. It is said that the peaks around Bhavan get snow in winters. The policemen there shoved us away after that. We collected our Prasad and coconut and came out. Now it was time to visit Bhairon Ghati without whose darshan the trip would not be complete. Though the route is just 1.8 kms but it is quite steep. We took stairs to save time and walk. We were exhausted after climbing up to the temple. Just in front of Bhairon temple, there is platform built for devotees to rest. Due to rush in the temple, we decided to rest a bit. This platform was a vantage point for valley beneath cradling Katra and villages beyond. It was like a carpet of lights and cool breeze blowing at this height made it a chilly spiritual spot. It would have been a lovely romantic spot had it not been overwhelmed by spirituality.
After Darshan at mandir it was time to retreat back via Adhkuwari where there is a tunnel from which people have to crawal out. The downhill was little better to sore legs. We took break for dinner but famed Chole Bhature were not available, only rice, daal, rajma and kadhi. This time we tried daal and kadhi. At Adhkuwari it was very crowded with pilgrims coming up and those taking rest or waiting to go into tunnel (gufa). For gufa entry one has to take a token which would have taken us next day, so we skipped and just had darshan of the mandir. It was around 12AM in the night. After this we decided to return back to hotel. We walked and walked which seemed to be endless walk due to aching legs. We finally came to Ban Ganga where the vehicle was there to receive us. We gladly jumped in and reached hotel and crashed into the bed. We walked almost 25 kms on foot which was a feat for both me and my wife. Though I have walked this much before but for her it was a lifetime record.
Next day we woke up at around 10 AM and lazily did the chores and got ready for 2:30 PM departure to Jammu. The journey was uneventful though it became hot by the time we came to Jammu station. Since, there were few hours of time for our train’s departure, we decided to wait in the station itself. The station was teeming with people like I have never seen before. There were devotees, army and other security personnel and security sensitive area made the atmosphere of the station tensed. I imagined mob scene going berserk with gunshots etc. Thankfully nothing of that sort happened. We managed in the waiting room which was one big hall with people spread out on the floor. We got into the train which left on time and was quick. We got off in Ambala Cantt to visit one of our acquaintance in Chandigarh. We reached there at 4:30 AM and slept. In the evening we had booked our journey by Shatabdi. My wife was traveling for the first time by Shatabdi so was pleasantly surprised to see the ambiance and service in the train. We had nice comfortable journey till we reached outskirts of New Delhi. New Delhi being hotbed of train traffic, we crawled from signal to signal for more than 30 minutes to finally reach New Delhi station. We had booked ourselves in Ginger Rail Yatri Niwas hotel, double occupancy for Rs. 999 which was worth the money. The room was modern with AC, TV and clean interiors though slightly compact. Anyways, the easy walk to hotel from station and quick checkin is what was required. After a warm bath we went to sleep. This hotel was worth value for money being close to station in the heart of Delhi with such amenities and easy booking over internet.
Next morning it was time to head back to Pune by Duronto express which leaves from Nizamuddin. We started early but everything was quick, checking out, getting an auto and drive to station. We reach an hour early. We found over the enquiry counter that our reservation was confirmed. We heaved a sigh of relief with this and were looking forward to it. Duronto Express are latest trains which match Rajdhani trains for being quick and onboard catering. However, the train food is all so predictable and taste alike be it loaded in Chandigarh, Delhi or Ratlam. We got a paneer subzi, daal, two paranthas, curd and rice on all three occasions. The train however didn’t disappoint and was getting green signal throughout. It was speedy throughout and reached all the stations like Kota, Ratlam, Vadodara on time and eventually Pune 10 minutes early. The route was unexpected for me as I did not find out about route. It went through Vasai Road, Kalyan and over Bhor ghats to Pune. The last hour run from Lonavala to Pune was spectacular. We had slept tight in the night so we were not stiff in the morning. After a quick auto-ride with metered fare we were home well before 8 AM.