The following is a trip report for a journey I took in October 2015.
After having dinner in the station kiosk at Bangalore City station, I made my way to my overnight train for Hyderabad. The train was a Rajdhani express; a premium overnight train with all AC sleeper accommodation. The cars are painted red and silver (instead of the usual 2 tone blue) and are newer than most other carriages.
My cabin mates were an older couple and a middle aged businessman. The couple did not speak any English, the businessman did, but did not say much. We departed Bangalore City on time, and were soon zipping through the suburbs of Bengaluru.
A couple of well dressed stewards came into our cabin and took orders for dinner. As I had eaten at Bangalore City station, I declined food. The stewards looked surprised and left. After they had gone, I discovered why they were so surprised; the businessman explained to me that the food on Rajdhani trains was included in the ticket price, and renowned for being of good quality. I regretted eating earlier, but could fit no more in. I retired to my bunk and was asleep before dinner arrived.
I awoke the next morning to find that we were running on time, and would soon arrive in Secunderabad (one of Hyderabad’s main stations). Unfortunately, the arrival was too early for complimentary breakfast on the train.
My next train would depart from Hyderabad Deccan station that night, so I decided to make my way there to store my luggage. Hyderabad has a suburban rail network (operated by MMTS) which serve both Secunderabad and Hyderabad Deccan, but not directly; passengers using MMTS to travel between the two are required to change at a junction station. Not wanting to haul my luggage on and off suburban trains, I decided to take one of the many long distance Indian Railways trains that run through Secunderabad to Hyderabad Deccan.
It was 7:50am, and I checked the departures board and found there was a train due at 8:00, but was indicated as running 10 minutes late. The departure platform was not yet displayed, so I waited near the departures board for more information. Just before 8:10, the delay increased to 20 minutes. This occurred several times; every time the train would get close to its new departure time, the delay would extend by 10 minutes. Finally, 70 minutes after the train was due, a platform number appeared on the board and the train arrived.
As I didn’t have a reservation for this train, I would have to use an unreserved second class car. This didn’t really bother me, as I suspected that most people would leave the train here and I should be able to get a seat for the 15 minute journey to Hyderabad Deccan. A jam packed 18 car train arrived, and as predicted a sea of humanity poured out of the unreserved second class cars. So many people left the train, that I wondered if I had misread the board and the train was terminating, but several people remained on the train and there were plenty of seats to choose from. Looking around at the worn lino floor and barely padded vinyl seating I was glad I was only spending 15 minutes in here, and not 15 hours as many people did.
The journey to Hyderabad Deccan station was sedate but unremarkable. I watched through the bars of the open window as we passed through many suburban stations and along the shore of Hussain Sagar (a large man made lake, constructed in 1562) before arriving into the small dead end station of Hyderabad Deccan (also known as Nampally). The cloak room took some finding, tucked away inside the station building, but after piecing together the information form several vague sets of directions, I found it in a dark corner, tucked behind some columns.
My bags safely stowed (relatively speaking), I set off for a day of sightseeing. I had 3 places I wanted to visit; the Charminar, the Mecca Masjid Mosque and the Golconda Fort. I decided on the Charminar and an the Mosque first, as they were the closest and right next to eachother. Ignoring the demands of the taxi and auto rickshaw drivers touting in front of the station, I walked out to the street, where Google Transit had told me I would find a bus to the Charminar.
I waited at the bus stop for a few minutes, when a man driving an auto rickshaw stopped; he said “Charminar?”. “How much?” I asked, “20 rupees” was the reply. This was only about 10 rupees more than the bus fare would be, so I agreed and we buzzed through the city, picking up 3 more passengers on the way. The reason for the cheap fare became clear; the Driver was more likely to find a real fare in the tourist area of the Charminar than he was at the railway station, so he charged enough to cover his fuel rather than go back empty.
The streets immediately around the Charminar were closed to traffic, so I walked the last few blocks through a street market. Vendors tried to convince me to buy their cheap bracelets and sunglasses (despite the fact that I was already wearing my own sunglasses). Fruit vendors pushed large carts through the crowds and small shops sold sweet biscuits and cakes. Ahead of me, I saw the Charminar; a square monument with an arch on each side, commissioned by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah in 1591 to commemorate the victims of the bubonic plague. The Charminar is situated at a crossroads, each of the 4 sides leads to a street in the busy marketplace, as it did when it was constructed.
I lined up to go inside, and was ushered to the front of the queue by the security guard. India has a discriminatory ticketing system, where foreigners pay significantly more to enter tourist attractions than locals do. In return, foreigners are given preferential treatment when it comes to queues. I paid my 100 rupees (around A$2.25, compared with the 5 rupees charged to locals) and entered. Again, I was ushered to the front of the queue, and into one of the legs of the Charminar. Inside I found a very narrow, dark, steep spiral staircase that led to the upper level.
I climbed to the top and was immediately accosted by an English speaking tour guide (probably tipped off from below that a foreigner was coming up) who offered his services for 100 rupees. I politely declined and started taking photographs of the excellent views from the balcony. A young security guard came up and started talking to me in excellent English, giving as good a guided tour as I would have expected from a tour guide, and showed me the best places for taking photos. At the end of my visit, I tipped him 50 rupees, which he seemed pleased with.
After climbing down another dimly lit spiral staircase, I exited the Charminar and pushing through the dozens of beggars and store holders, walked around the corner to the Mecca Masjid Mosque. The Mecca Masjid is one of the largest mosques in India, commissioned by Sultan Muhammad Qutb Shah and completed in 1694. The bricks in the central arch of the Mosque are made from soil brought from Mecca and the impressive 54m wide, 23m tall façade is constructed from a single piece of granite. I am always hesitant to go into a house of worship as a tourist; it feels a bit intrusive. I thought about it, and then decided that as I was there and many other tourists were going in, I may as well enter too. After a perfunctory bag search at the front gate, I entered the mosque forecourt.
Before entering the inner area, there was a sign instructing people to take off their shoes. I hesitated, but a small man inside the inner forecourt said “take off your shoes and come inside”. I thought that this was a pretty good sign that I was welcome (even that refusal to enter may offend) so I took off my shoes and hobbled across the hot stone courtyard to the marble hall. Inside the cool marble hallway, the little man led me past a group of people lounging around (I presumed Muslims finding solace in the cool Mosque on a hot day). We approached a man with a scraggly beard who I presumed was some kind of holy man (an imam perhaps) burning incense and sitting cross legged. The little man led me to him, and the bearded holy man performed some kind of blessing, then held out a pot for a donation. I pulled out a couple of 10 rupee notes, but the little man said disapprovingly “it’s expensive to keep this mosque maintained”, so I put in a 100 rupee note. This placated the little man, and he took me on a fast paced tour of the mosque (not that I had asked for one). His explanations were in clipped, staccato English sentences which gave the basic details of what I was seeing (“we pray here, face west, Mecca”, “minaret… photo… Charminar background”).
The tour lasted about 15 minutes, and at the end, the man said “you give a donation… Mosque is expensive to maintain”. I pulled out a 50 rupee note and gave it to him, he looked at me in disgust. I told him “I gave the rest of my cash to the holy man, nothing left!” (I was glad the 500 rupee notes were well hidden behind my credit card). The little man turned and walked away, muttering something I couldn’t understand.
I left the mosque and its greedy inhabitants, bound for Golconda Fort. Golconda (Shepherd’s Hill) Fort was built during the 1600s and covers a massive area (the outer wall is 10 km long). Most of the fort is now in ruins, but there is still a significant portion that is preserved and open to tourists to explore. I looked at Google Transit, and there was supposedly a bus stop about a kilometre away, where a bus would take me up to the fort so I set off up a dusty road towards the bus stop.
The walk was interesting, through a mainly Islamic area, full of greengrocers, butchers (halal) and hardware stores. There were many small mosques and schools along the road and I received some curious looks as I walked along. Although the walk was interesting, it was a hot day and my sweat was causing the road dust to stick to my face and arms.
I arrived at the location Google maps had told me to catch the bus; a roundabout with a Hindu temple in the middle. I could see no evidence of a bus stop, but did see a group of people were waiting in a seemingly random area beside the road, suddenly a bus arrived and stopped. Some of the people climbed on and the bus left – an unmarked bus stop! I wanted a route 80X, which would allegedly arrive in about 10 minutes. So I waited, 122R… 52F… 93K; the parade of buses went on and on, but no 80X.
15 minutes after the bus was due, I decided to give up and catch an auto rickshaw. There was a group of them nearby, and I approached a driver to ask him to take me to Golconda Fort. He didn’t seem to understand me, so I asked another, then another… none of them seemed to understand where I wanted to go. A young policeman had been watching me, and in English, asked me what the problem was. I told him I wanted to go to Golconda Fort. He said “It’s 4 kilometres that way, they probably don’t want to go because they won’t get a fare back”. This seemed a little strange, but the only explanation I had.
I started walking in the direction the policeman had pointed; 4 kilometres wasn’t too bad, I could walk that in under an hour and find a bus back from there. After about 15 minutes of walking on the hot, narrow, dusty road, an autorickshaw driver pulled up next to me and asked where I was going. I told him, and he said he would take me there for 250 rupees. 250 rupees was a bit steep for 4km (probably only 3km now), but I was tired and hot. “200 rupees” I said. He replied “no, no. Too small”. I shrugged and started to walk away when he called me back “ok, ok, 200 rupees”.
I climbed in, and although I didn’t know Hyderabad too well, I knew we were going the wrong way. I said to the driver “Eh! Golconda Fort!”. He said “yes, but I need gas first, then Fort”. I thought it was a little careless that he didn’t even have enough fuel to go 4km, but wasn’t going to argue. We fuelled up, and started heading in the right direction. The ride took a lot longer than I had anticipated, and it dawned on me; the policeman had meant 14km, not 4km! No wonder the auto rickshaw driver had wanted 250 rupees!
We arrived at the fort, and the driver looked at me hopefully and asked “250?” He had earned it, and I was glad I didn’t try to walk, so I agreed. The Driver grinned and asked if I wanted him to wait. Knowing that he would charge me for the time I was in there, I thought I’d chance it and sent him on his way. He grinned again and drove off looking for another fare.
I was once again hustled to the front of the ticket queue at the fort and charged 20 times the locals’ rate for entry. I walked up through the preserved entry way, and was inundated by offers from English speaking tour guides. I declined them all, and walked in through the large stone archway that had once housed the gate. Inside was a large courtyard with a well maintained garden, and small squirrels dashing about. Beyond the courtyard, the ruins of the fort stretched off up the hill as far as the eye could see.
I spent several hours exploring the ruins, before deciding to climbing the hill behind the courtyard to the tower perched atop it. The day was hot and humid, and the hill that had looked small at the bottom seemed to go on forever. Halfway up I was soaked in sweat, but determined to reach the top, I kept climbing. Finally, red faced, puffing and panting, I reached the top and bought an overpriced bottle of lukewarm water from the inevitable scruffy young vendor.
The tower was a wonderful vantage point, with magnificent views out across Hyderabad. From my vantage point, I could see storm clouds rolling in and I heard distant thunder. I didn’t fancy slipping and sliding down the dirt track in the rain, so I made my way back down the hill. As I reached the courtyard, the rain started in big, heavy drops, washing away the sweat and grit that had accumulated during my walk through the city and hill climb.
I exited the fort and checked Google Maps to see if I would have any luck finding a bus back to central Hyderabad. It showed a bus station a few hundred metres away and bus 27S looked like it would take me back to the Charminar. I walked up towards the bus station, and saw a 27S pulling out. As it slowed to enter the road, I climbed aboard the open doorway and was soon making a much cheaper (and slightly more comfortable) return from Golconda Fort. I had intended on returning to the Charminar and making my way back to the railway station from there, but I found that the 27S went past Lakdi Ka Pul railway station. Wanting to go for a ride on a Hyderabad suburban train, I left the bus and entered the station.
Hyderabad’s 3 line suburban railway is known as the MMTS (Multi Modal Transport System). It shares tracks with Indian Railways’ trains, and suffers from long delays due to bottlenecks at major stations and late running long distance Indian Railways trains (which seem to get priority). I waited and waited for a train, and eventually an 8 car set turned up. It was of a fairly standard suburban train design, with stainless steel interior and fans for cooling; the doors and windows remained open for ventilation. The outside of the train was mostly painted white and blue, with 2 cars white and pink which were designated as ladies’ cars.
I decided to take the train back to Secunderabad to photograph some Indian Railways trains. The trip involved changing trains at the junction station of Begumpet, where I just missed a connection due to an unscheduled 10 minute delay to allow an Indian Railways train to precede us. After a wait of about 25 minutes at Begumpet, I caught a train sedately towards Secunderabad.
I spent some time photographing the plentiful train movements around the station before catching an Indian Railways MEMU back to Hyderabad Deccan. I was not travelling on a Radjhani express tonight, so I bought some dinner in the station cafeteria; 35 rupees (about A$0.80) for a “thali” – several different serves of curry, with flatbread and rice. After dinner, it was time to collect my luggage and find my train to Mumbai.