Looking for 12603

Generally, Gerard makes an itinerary long before we leave for India. This year, the leg of the journey into the mountains would be determined by the weather, and since there are so few trains in this area, no need to book in advance. As the time drew closer to leave Rishikesh, we realized getting to the Kullu Valley was not straightforward. It doesn’t happen often, but there are times when your plans just don’t work out and you have to try to explore the remaining options with an open mind and “stay calm.” Gerard had read somewhere online that the easiest route from Rishikesh was to take a train to Ambala and then a state bus to Mandi at the beginning of the Valley. We hustled down to a travel agent hoping there would still be a vacancy on a train – and we were in luck. That afternoon, we looked for state buses from Ambala to Mandi; there were none. Ok, well, private buses. Yes, there are ones going from Delhi to Manali, that passes through Ambala around 11pm. The train arrives around 9pm if it’s on time…so maybe that could work. We phoned a few travel agents in Ambala to try and purchase the private bus tickets, and nobody would take a US credit card. The other aggravating factor, you couldn’t buy for distance travel; you could only buy the whole route from Delhi to Manali. The entire afternoon was spent staring at the computer screen going around in circles. “I’ve had enough, let’s go and eat dinner.” On the way out of the hotel, one of the friendly staff suggested we go to Chandigarh by train instead of Ambala and then take a state bus to Mandi. So we grabbed our railway tickets and went back to the travel agent. The agent said, “ Yes, there is availability for a chair car train to Chandigarh tomorrow getting in at night.” “We’ll take it.” A very small refund on the old ticket because the departure was less than 24 hours away.

The next hurdle was to find accommodation in Chandigarh. Since it’s not a tourist destination, the usual type of guesthouse we stayed in didn’t exist. Searching the net, it was all business type hotels. Then we ran into payment problems again; the hotels would not take a US credit card. Finally, I found a candidate who would take PayPal – we booked it. Chandigarh is a relatively new city built post-Independence, laid out on a grid and divided into orderly sectors. This seemed boring and it had never previously appealed to us. But as soon as we decided to go there, everything fell into place.

The next morning, we said goodbye to our friendly hotel staff and, in the heat of the day, schlepped our bags across the narrow and very crowded Laxman Jhula bridge. Almost immediately, a taxi drew up and asked where we going. He said, “I’m going to the bus station too. I’ll only charge you 100Rs.” (a third of the regular price) .Wiping his sweaty brow, Gerard thought the price of the air conditioning alone was worth the 100 Rs. We made good time and arrived at the bus station JUST as a bus was leaving for Haridwar. With plenty of traffic, rail crossing stop, not to mention the usual cows sitting in the road, the bus driver kept the journey within the estimated hour and got us to the train station in plenty of time. But where was our train? There was no 12063 to Chandigarh listed on the board; the closest was 12053 to Amritsar. Eventually, we found a station master who informed us our train would be attached to 12053 shortly. Looking up and down the platform, Gerard muttered, “The train is supposed to leave in 10 minutes.” Sure enough, a little after the train’s scheduled departure two extra carriages did arrive that were 12063. The whole train was chair car class, meaning we sat in chairs instead of compartments as if on a bus, and with wall fans instead of AC. It was crowded but we found our reserved seats and then at every stop more people more crowded on. I sat by the open window and took pictures of a surprisingly fertile country landscape that was decidedly Sikh, passing numerous Gurudwaras.


Arriving in Chandigarh almost on time, we easily found our hotel, the city being as orderly as we expected. It was a typical city hotel – a room just acceptably clean, the bathroom without a full wall connecting it to the bathroom of the neighbouring bathroom. We heard our Indian neighbour get up before 6 am and spend what seemed like two hours performing loud nasal cleaning, involving lots of water. I would love to witness this procedure just once.

Right after breakfast, a helpful travel agent next door to the hotel told us a state bus was leaving for Mandi in just over an hour. We ran back and threw our things together, grabbed a rickshaw and reached the bus station in the nick of time to purchase perhaps the last two tickets in the back of the bus We boarded. Luggage is always a problem on state buses– there’s no room for bags and yet the conductor insists on your bringing them on the bus and either jamming under the seat or overhead. It’s not always possible. As I struggled with my bag, the ticket collector rather abruptly took and jammed it under the seat and then took Gerard’s and forced it into a space overhead. After a bone-shaking eight hours, we arrived in Mandi, and again just in time to catch the last bus up to Rewalsar. Two hours later, we settled into a very nice guesthouse near the top of the town (a 345 step climb – Gerard counted them) with a wonderful view of the surrounding hills, town, and valley below.



A long train ride

Gerard tells me that one of the things he likes about traveling is being forced to embrace the unexpected. But it also involves letting go of what you want and when you want it, not so simple for me.

Our train trip from Bundi to Goa illustrates the need to stay flexible. The train originated in Chandigarh, north of Delhi, and was delayed three hours in reaching Bundi because of fog. A three-hour delay I felt I handled quite well. We boarded the train hoping it might make up for lost time; it was late and we went to bed with that thought in mind. In the morning, rumours started circulating among the chai wallahs that the train was going to be four or five hours late reaching Goa. Bear in mind that we were traveling on a single-track train line. Once a train is off schedule it loses it place in the queue. We were continually waiting at stations to let other trains go by.

train st by night

As the day progressed, our estimated arrival time continued to grow. A little before our station, a fellow passenger with her husband and daughter was happy to be finally arriving in the night, seven hours late. She said: “It is a matter of congratulations if you are getting off now!”

Back when were boarded the train in Bundi, an elderly Indian gentleman, his thick shock of white hair matching his white Safari suit, sat on the top bunk across from me, looking like a Brahmin gentleman. Propped up  the wall, he was reading his newspaper. He looked over his heavy black frame glasses watching me struggle to make up my bunk for the night. In 2AC we’re given a paper parcel of clean sheets and pillow.


Observing my efforts to reach my top bunk, he joked, “You’re trying to make it perfect with hospital corners and all.” I defended that at least I wanted to start the journey perfectly, knowing full well that the sheets would end up in a twisted mess. He returned, “In India, you have to go with the flow.” I feigned agreement, not registering that his odd accent and turn of phrase were not typically Indian. The next morning, he greeted me with, “I’m sorry I laughed at you.” It was then I realized he had strong Scottish accent. During the journey, he launched into his story. (As a young boy he was called Akeem.)

Akeem’s father immigrated to Edinburgh from the Punjab after Partition. The family had owned a farm in Pakistan, but lost the land. The Pakistani government was supposed to compensate. The problem was that when they crossed the border into India, the Pakistanis took their birth certificates, deeds etc. and burned them so the government didn’t have to provide compensation. (The Indian government did the same in the other direction, for those crossing into Pakistan).

In Scotland, his father sold clothes door-to-door out of a suitcase. Akeem was only ten years old and spoke no English. When he went to school, the headmaster, who happened to have been to India, gave him special help, but he learned the language most from playing with the local kids.

When Akeem was 15, his father wanting to return to farming, decided to go to America. But with his Muslim name he continually ran into roadblocks. A friend suggested, “Just change your name and you’ll have no problem.” And that’s exactly what happened. He changed the family name from Bakshir, meaning ‘scattering of truth’, and Akeem became Alistair Ross. His father settled in Sacramento Valley and planned to stay two years before bringing the family. But aged only 38, he died of a massive heart attack.

Back in Scotland, Alistair was forced to leave school just before graduating and went to work in the coal mines. It was regular work in the area and paid well. The mines also sent him to college part time while he worked. Finally he graduated and became an inspector. He worked for the mines for many years, toward the end as a consultant. Then at 48, he took early retirement. He thought he would go back to school for a degree in accountancy to round out his consulting skills. But when he looked at his mining pension, he thought, why bother? I can live comfortably on the pension.

Along the way, he married a Scottish woman and had 5 children. One girl immigrated to Australia, another became a lawyer. Two sons died; we didn’t like to push why. When the first son died, it put a huge strain on the relationship. When the second son died it was too much, they went to separate parts of the house and grieved alone. It ended in divorce – Alistair had not only lost two children but also his wife. He set her up in a flat and moved himself into a retirement community where he now amuses the other residents by traveling every winter somewhere warm.

He enjoys Scottish summers and has no intention of moving back to India permanently. A while ago, he did return to the village in Pakistan where his family had lived. He hoped to reclaim some of their land and submitted an application. A many page document came back. It contained all the information he’d given about himself and his family, and at the end merely said, “No record available.”

Having this travel companion tell us his interesting story helped the frustration of being on a train seven hours late that continually stopped.