It was my last day in Chennai, and I wanted to do some sightseeing (other than trains) before I left. Marina Beach was number 1 on many of the travel websites highlights so I walked to Park Town station and caught an MRTS train from Park Town (near Central station) to Thiruvallikeni and walked one block to the beach. Chennai has 3 suburban rail systems: a partially completed Metro, MRTS (Mass Rapid Transit System – heavy rail on a dedicated corridor) and suburban rail (same trains as MRTS but on a shared corridor with long distance and freight trains).
Marina Beach is 15km long and averages 400m wide. As I walked from the car park to wards the water, I passed through an alley of (mostly closed) food and souvenir stalls; the well worn and compacted yellow-brown sand littered with rubbish. I finally made it to the end of the row, and found a steep sandy slope down to the water. I few kids played in the medium sized waves under the watchful eye of their parents, but apart from that there were few people on the beach. I walked along the water’s edge, dodging the rubbish that had been left behind by beach-goers.
As I walked on, I passed the carcass of either a dog or a pig, which had been washed ashore, and was eagerly being feasted on by a murder of crows. A group of well dressed, well fed young boys ran up and held out their hands. They demanded I give them some money, I told them “no” politely but they hung around me like flies, until running off laughing when I told them to get lost.
I walked along the beach to Lighthouse MRTS station, where I planned my next move. Another popular choice for tourists is Semmozhi Poonga (a botanical garden), but it’s not close to any railway station. As I pondered how to get there, an auto rickshaw driver must have sensed a clueless tourist and said “where you want to go? I take you.” I told him and he said “100 rupees”. The price seemed reasonable, so I agreed and we sped off in the little 3 wheeled vehicle. Instead of heading for Semmozhi Poonga, he headed back towards the beach. He stopped in the car park and said proudly “Marina Beach! You walk on beach.” I tried to explain to him that I had already been on the the beach, but he did not believe me until I showed him photographic evidence.
The auto rickshaw driver then said “Lighthouse”, pointing to a tall red and white building next to the beach. I said “Yes, it is a lighthouse”, wondering why he was stating the obvious. “We go” he said. It wasn’t really what I had planned to see, but since I was there I thought I may as well. I paid, and it was only after we had started our ascent that I realised that the driver had included himself when I was paying my entry ticket. There was an observation deck at the top of the lighthouse, looking out over the water and parts of the city. On a clear day, it would have had a beautiful view over the Bay of Bengal, but the weather was hazy (either through fog or smog), so there was little to see.
We descended and made our way back to the auto rickshaw, and started manoeuvring through traffic. The driver said to me “there is market on the way, I take you, is nice”. Thinking of an open air market with traders peddling their wares, I agreed, but instead of arriving at an open air market, we pulled up in front of a fancy looking shop. The driver said “you go, shop”. I hesitantly approached the door, which was opened for me by an immaculately presented security guard. Inside, I found myself as the only customer and was instantly approached by a salesman. I told him I just wanted to browse, and he made several unwanted suggestions about what I should buy and for whom (“silk scarf for your mother, your sister…”) A quick look around confirmed my suspicions; a lot of things that I didn’t want to buy, at prices that were expensive even by Australian standards.
I left the souvenir shop and the driver said “you no buy?” I said “no, I’m not here for shopping.” He grinned and shrugged his shoulders before driving off. We arrived at Semmozhi Poonga at around 11:30 and the driver said “ok where we go?” I said that I’d be here for a while and would find my own way back. He said, “no, is closed. Open 3pm”. I asked him if he knew it was closed when I said I wanted to go there. He looked a little sheepish and shrugged as if to say “you asked me to take you here, not if it was open or not.” In frustration, I said “just take me back to the railway station”.
On the way back to the station, the driver said “we go to another market?” I said “no, station”. He said “please, I take you another market, you look for ten minute, I get calling card, get small money”. He wanted me to browse for a kickback from the shop owner, I relented and said “ok, one. Only one. I’m not buying, and only ten minutes”. He grinned and said “ok”. We pulled up at a similar store and on entering I was immediately accosted by a salesman. This store was more interesting, with artefacts and religious icons such as Ganesha (the Hindu elephant god). The salesman was almost like a museum guide, not suspecting that I had no intention of buying.
After exactly ten minutes, I said “thank you” and amid protests and suggestions from the salesman, walked out to the auto rickshaw, where the smiling driver had his calling card. We drove back to Lighthouse station, where the driver said “550 rupees”. I said “what do you mean 550 rupees? You said 100!”. The driver said “100 is for Semmozhi Poonga. I took you beach, lighthouse and 2 markets.” As calmly as I could, I explained “I only asked to go to Semmozhi Poonga, I didn’t ask to go to any of the other places. Anyway, you are getting money from the markets for taking me there!”. “Oh, market is small money, and Semmozhi Poonga is closed.” “But you KNEW Semmozhi Poonga was closed!”. He gave me a pleading look and said “but my petrol, my time…” Exasperated, and not wanting to argue over a fare less than A$10, I said “300 rupees, no more.” The driver seemed satisfied with this and I stormed off, not upset about the money but by the cheek of the man. Fuming, I caught an MRTS train to Chennai Beach (not actually at the beach, but right next to the docks) where I had lunch in the dining room on the second floor of the station. From Chennai Beach, I caught the train to St Thomas Mount.
Chennai’s metro system is currently under construction. In June 2015, the first section from Alandur to Koyambedu was opened, eventually, the metro will have 2 lines, intersecting at Alandur and Chennai Central, serving both main city railway stations (Central and Egmore), the Airport and many suburbs which currently don’t have access to any rail transport. Currently, the nearest station to a railway station is Alandur, which is about 1.2km from St Thomas Mount station. Construction is currently under way to turn St Thomas Mount into a major transport hub, with a station on the Metro Green line, a new 4.7km connection to the MRTS line and the existing suburban rail station.
After my earlier encounter with the auto rickshaw, I was reluctant to take another, so I decided to walk the 1.2km between the suburban railway and Alandur metro station. I started off using Google Maps to navigate on my phone, but it quickly became evident that I wouldn’t need it, as all I had to do was follow the partially completed elevated metro tracks, which ran on a concrete viaduct above a busy road. I made my way along the road, dodging the dogs, cows, goats and piles of rubbish and before long, I found Alandur metro station, clean and modern, rising up out of the dust and smog of the busy road.
I entered the freshly painted station (complete with flower garden out the front), and encountered a security checkpoint. I put my bag through the x-ray machine and walking through a metal detector before entering the station. Inside, the station was bright, spacious and clean. I approached the ticket machine, and a customer service person helped me through the overly complex procedure of buying a token from the ticket machine.
The token has an RFID (radio frequency identification) chip built in, and on entering the ticket barrier, you touch the token on a pad on top. This opens the barrier and activates the token. On exiting, you drop the token into a slot in the gate and if you have paid enough the gate opens. If you didn’t pay the correct fare, the gate remains closed and a red light comes on and the gate supervisor has to intervene.
There were large LED information boards in the concourse, displaying in Arwi (Tamil script) and also alternating between Devanagari (Hindi script) and English. I made my way up to the platform, where a 4 car blue and silver Alstom built train was waiting. Inside the train was very clean and air conditioned with interactive maps.
The rest of the passengers looked as if they were out for sightseeing as well; most taking photos of the very new trains and many families riding together in great excitement. This was partially because the incomplete line runs from one unimportant suburb to another, not passing any major landmarks, nor connecting with other rail lines. Once complete, it will be an important link to many.
We smoothly accelerated out of the platform and through a crossover. The ride was very smooth, but oddly the lights kept flickering off then on again. Automated announcements were clear and made in Tamil, Hindi and English. The 7 opened stations looked identical, with white stone floors and corrugated iron roofs. There were some good views out across the city from the elevated track.
I let the train at the current terminus (Koyambedu) and exited the station. Outside the clean, bright station concourse, I found myself in a dirty, dark street under a freeway overpass. There was no footpath along the road, and nothing worth staying for. I immediately re-entered the station and took the train back in the other direction.
The Chennai Metro has an unusual photography policy; no cameras allowed, but passengers are welcome to take photos with mobile phones. Wanting a few shots of trains entering a station, I left the train a stop early at Ashok Nagar to take some photographs. The security guard on the platform tried to tell me something, but she could only speak Hindi, so I couldn’t work out what she was trying to say. I could tell from her demeanour that she wasn’t telling me I was doing something wrong, but trying to give me some information. In the end, she walked away, exasperated (“silly foreigners, coming to my country and not knowing the language“).
I photographed a train on the opposite platform running back to Koyambedu. Shortly after this, I understood what the frustrated security guard had been trying to tell me, as a train bound for Alandur arrived on the opposite platform! I carefully checked the displays to make sure the next train to Alandur would leave from my platform (it was), and fortunately only had 6 minutes to wait.