This is a trip report for a journey I took in October, 2015.
I had boarded the Mumbai Express at Hyderabad Deccan station. The train was full and sharing my 4 berth compartment was a young, slightly overweight Anglo Indian, an old man with orange hair and an old Muslim man. The old Muslim was wearing elegant white robes and and a white Taqiyah hat, he did not speak English, but his travelling companion (a younger Arabic looking man man who I presumed to be his son) did. The old Muslim’s son was travelling in a different compartment, but there was ample space for him to share ours before bedtime. The Anglo Indian man spoke excellent English with a british accent. The older man with orange hair said very little to anyone, and retired to his upper bunk almost as soon as we departed Hyderabad.
The old Muslim man and his son were eating chicken biriyani, and offered to share with me. I politely declined their generous offer, I could see that this had caused offence, but quickly clarified and told them I was a vegetarian; this placated them and the look of offence on their faces turned to understanding and moderate respect.
I had an enjoyable talk with the Anglo Indian man about life in India and our collective travels around the world. He was from Pune, a city of around 3,000,000 people located about 150km from Mumbai. He told me that there was rain in Mumbai, and predicted flooding that would paralyse the city. He said that every time it rained, Mumbai ground to a halt and that was one of the reasons he was glad to live in Pune. This had me slightly worried, as it gave me images of wading through floods and stranded trains during my stay in Mumbai.
The next morning, we awoke to find that the Mumbai Express was running about 2 hours late; no one seemed surprised. Before leaving the train at Pune, the Anglo Indian told me that I should change trains at Dadar (a suburban station near the centre of Mumbai) to avoid having to backtrack to catch a suburban train to my hotel near Grant Road station.
Pune came and went, and we were making good time towards Mumbai… until we hit the outer suburbs. We stopped and started, and crawled and stopped. The final insult was when we were overtaken by a track maintenance vehicle with a worker walking behind it. We finally arrived at a busy inner city station, and most of the carriage prepared to leave the train. It was only after we had stopped that I realised it was Dadar, the station at which I had been told to change! I quickly packed up all of my things and made a dash for the door. The train just started to move as I stepped off and miraculously I had all of my belongings.
I had to find a Western Line train headed for Churchgate, so I walked towards the footbridge and crossed towards the suburban platforms. At first I could only find Central Line trains in the busy concourse. I looked for Churchgate on the passenger displays, but couldn’t find it. Then I remembered that on the map I had seen, the Western Line appeared as if it were slightly removed from the Central Line, on the west side. I walked off the concourse, and found a small footbridge, which led to another, smaller concourse for Western Line trains.
Trains were frequent; a 12 car train departing every 3 – 5 minutes in each direction on the quadruple tracks. I found my Churchchgate Local train and started boarding with my luggage. The train had barely stopped, when it started moving again! Fortunately, most of my weight was on the foot I had inside the train, and my fellow travelers pulled me in as we rapidly accelerated down the platform. It was early on a Sunday afternoon and the train was lightly loaded and we raced through inner Mumbai, pausing briefly at half a dozen stations before arriving at Grant Rd. This time I was ready, and tightly held my bags as I stepped off the train just before it stopped. I had barely hit the platform when the train took off again without warning.
I walked in the direction of my hotel, which was only about a block away from the railway station. The area around the station was a large market, selling mostly clothing and electrical goods. Well maintained bright red vintage Ashok Leyland buses rumbled by in the heavy traffic and I walked along the footpath in the mid afternoon heat. I found the area where my hotel was supposed to be, but saw only computer shops. The store holders urged me to come in and look at their goods, but I walked on. I checked the address of my hotel again, which was given as 1st floor, opposite Lamington Rd police station. I looked across the road, and was directly opposite the historic building housing the Lamington Rd police station. I could not see any sign of a hotel lobby amidst the shop fronts, so kept walking.
A small gap between the shops caught my eye, with a clean, white stone staircase leading up from the footpath. I climbed the narrow staircase and found a reception desk at the top. Behind the desk was the hotel manager who knew who I was; “we were expecting you several hours ago sir”. I told him that my train was late and he was surprised that I had arrived by train (but not that the train was several hours late). My room was basic, but had the essentials (clean bathroom, air conditioner and Wi-Fi). Although I had been travelling for 3 nights without a shower, I decided to wait until the evening as Mumbai was sticky and gritty and I’d only get dirty again.
I left the hotel and walked back to Grant Road station, where I caught a lightly loaded “slow” (all stations) train to Andheri where the Western Line connects with the Mumbai Metro. I made my way up to the elevated metro station, passing through the ubiquitous metro security checkpoint and onto the clean platform. After waiting for only a few minutes, a sleek silver 4 car train slid into the platform. It was lightly loaded, with plenty of seats available. The powerful air conditioning was a welcome respite from the sticky Mumbai afternoon.
We ran smoothly through the northern suburbs of Mumbai. Station announcements were made in Hindi and English, with a curious little jingle played underneath the announcement. We soon arrived at the eastern terminus of the line at Ghatkopar, and I walked out of the cool train back into the heat and humidity.
At Ghatkopar, the metro line connects with the Central Line, and I walked down to the Indian Railways platform. Crowded trains were passing through frequently and I waited on the northbound platform for a “fast” service. A young Indian man standing next to me asked in excellent English “have you ever travelled on a Central Line train before?” I shook my head and he said “ok, they can be a bit intimidating. Just let me push you into the train, you’ll be ok”. I didn’t quite know what he meant until the train arrived; it was jam packed, and as passengers started piling off, other passengers started pushing their way on. My friend gently pushed me in the back, and I found myself squeezed into the centre of the car. There was nowhere to hold on and the train started with a jolt but I didn’t fall over; I couldn’t fall over, we were packed in so tightly that I could barely move. As we rolled down the platform, more passengers jumped on and hung off the doorways, not actually inside the doorway (there was no room for that) but clinging to the hand rail, balanced at a 30 degree angle outwards from the carriage.
As we sped through Mumbai’s northern suburbs, my new friend asked where I was getting out. “Thane” I told him. “This will be the next stop” he said “push your way to the other side and I will help you get out”. I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to force my way through where no gap existed. No one glared at me for pushing, no one was bothered as I stepped on feet and I made my way halfway across the car. As we pulled into the next station, I felt a firm but gentle push in my back that propelled me through the mass of humanity inside the train and out onto the platform, as a surge of Indians began to simultaneously push into and out of the train. I caught my breath on the platform, and I saw my helper wave as the train rolled out of the platform, even more crowded than before.
I found my next train and was relieved to find that it was an ancient but very lightly loaded 9 car Central Line EMU. I found a seat and we soon departed, stopping at all stations to Vashi. Many passengers boarded the train en-route, but it was nowhere as crowded as the previous train had been. The train terminated at Vashi, so I left the train to find a Harbour Line service to Chembur. Each track at Vashi has a platform on either side, and a crowd waited on either side of the Mumbai bound track. My heart sank as the Harbour Line train approached; it was almost as crowded as the train from Ghatkopar to Thane was, and this time I had no helper!
I forced my way on to the packed train and somehow made it inside (there was no way I was going to hang out the side like many locals did). We ran through the dusk and when we arrived at the next station I was carried forward with the crowd surge. This was not my stop, but I had no choice but to move out onto the platform. By the time I turned around to face the train again, there was no room, so I watched the train pull away. Fortunately, the next train was only a few minutes behind, and this time I was ready; I barged my way in and made my way to the middle of the car. At the next stop, I managed to hold my position, and remain on the train.
I exited the train at Chembur and walked out of the station. Above a busy road sat the Chembur terminus of the Mumbai Monorail. I walked along a long footbridge up to the station and bought a token to the other end of the line. I made my way up to the platform as a bright green 4 car train was pulling in. Inside, the train was very clean and icy cold, very much appreciated after being packed into the sweaty suburban trains on the humid afternoon. The train was a continuous articulated unit with large windows and white plastic walls. The seating arrangement was interesting; pods of plastic seats in the centre of the car, facing the windows.
As we departed Chembur, I was surprised to hear that the English version of the “stand clear, doors closing” announcement was made in an Australian accent. The little monorail made its way through industrial areas, stopping at stations with exotic names such as Fertiliser Township, Bharat Petrolium and Mysore Colony. The flare stacks from several oil refineries lighting up the evening sky. Between Bhakti Park and Wadala Depot, we skirted the monorail depot and arrived into the Wadala Depot terminus. The second stage of the Mumbai Monorail is under construction (Wadala Depot to Currey Road railway station), but the line currently terminates in an area not well served by other public transport.
I exited the station, and found myself in a slum area. There was loud dance music coming from an open area, where a makeshift disco had been set up with an adult DJ mixing on what looked like an iPhone. Several small children danced in the strobe lights. I passed by quickly to get away from the deafeningly loud music and walked along a busy, well lit street. There were small shops lining the street and beyond these, lay slum housing as far as the eye could see.
After walking for about 15 minutes, I arrived at Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar railway station, and caught a Central Line train to Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), the station featured in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Although I saw no Bollywood style dancing in the impressive station, I did stay and watch the frequent arrivals of trains and the multitudes of people that swarmed through the exit gate.
From CST I walked the 1.5km to Churchgate station, past historic buildings and through night markets. Despite being late on a Sunday evening, there were still Western Line trains departing from Churchgate every few minutes, although there were nowhere near the number of passengers I had witnessed earlier and I watched passengers chasing down departing trains which were already moving, jumping on at the last minute. I caught a “slow” service back to Grant Road and walked back to my hotel, where I had my first shower in over 3 days.