Hey guys, I’m back with the third part of my five-part East India Travel series🙂
For those of you who may have missed my previous posts, the East India travel series is about my exciting nine-day journey through three beautiful states in East India: Odisha (formerly Orissa), Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. Here are the links to my previous posts covering the internationally-famous tourist destinations in Odisha:
Today’s post is about my brief stay in southern Odisha’s serene seaside town of Gopalpur-on-Sea and the lovely port city of Vishakhapatnam (or Vizag) in Andhra Pradesh. In my subsequent posts, I’ll take you to the colourful tribal district of Bastar in Chhattisgarh and lastly, a little more of the lovely port city of Vishakhapatnam.
Thursday, 21 May 2015
6:30pm. I sigh in relief. My three and a half hour bus journey from Puri has finally comes to an end. I’m in Behrampur (or Brahmapur) which is famous for silk saris and dress material. Earlier I had thought about shopping for silk saris but there’s no time for it now. The bus to Gopalpur-on-Sea is expected to arrive within half an hour but I’m advised to take an autorickshaw instead. The buses are usually crowded, and it would be very difficult to get inside with my bag. I dislike arriving at a new place after dusk, more so when it’s a small town. The waiting rickshaws are charging 300 rupees for Gopalpur-on-Sea, which is 16 km away. A few minutes later, a 20-something rickshaw driver offers to take me there for 220 rupees. It’s going to be a 40-minute ride on a dark and lonely road so he asks a friend to accompany him. Within the town, the roads are terrible. But once outside, it’s a smooth ride. And then, the driver tells me that the rickshaw’s tyre pressure seems to be low. There is no service station to be found. There are fewer vehicles on the dark road in case help is required.
I reach Gopalpur-on-Sea at around 7:30pm. The most popular budget hotel here is Hotel Sea-Side Breeze. The “only hotel close to the beach” is their tagline. It’s located alongside the road, its backside facing the sea. Being dark, I’m unsure about the place because it’s just a small one-storeyed building. But after climbing out from the rickshaw and looking around it feels okay. The hotel has a dozen or more rooms, most of them facing the sea. The two boys bring in my bag, their eyes brimming with respect. Sure, and why not? No girl in her right mind would travel alone to an unknown place, at this hour on a dark and desolate road.
My sea-facing double room is the hotel’s best. It’s on the first floor with a private balcony. At 700 rupees, it’s value for money. After the scorching heat of the past few days, the strong cold breeze blowing in through the open balcony door is very welcoming. The hotel is right on the beach. Whether I’m inside the room or the bathroom, the thundering sound of sea waves accompanies me everywhere. It feels great for some time till I realize that the saline air is affecting my digital camera and bag’s zipper. So I have to close the balcony door. Dinner is an absolutely delicious meal of prawn curry and steamed rice. I have it outside at the balcony table. Below, there’s a family lounging in the porch, enjoying the beautiful night. I missed the sunset scene but I can imagine the guests sitting on the beach enjoying a tangy snacks like jhal-muri, bhelpuri, panipuri or chaat. Perhaps yummy fried fish too. Mmmm… I suddenly feel like having fried prawns. But I’m late, the prawns are over.
I have decided to leave early tomorrow so as to reach Visakhapatnam before 3:00pm. There’s no time for breakfast or sightseeing. I need to catch up on some sleep so I sneak off to bed at 9:30pm.
Friday, 22 May 2015
At 5:00am the alarm goes off. I open the balcony door to be greeted by the beautiful sight of the azure blue sky and the swirling and roaring waves of the Bay of Bengal hitting the shore, spreading white foam on the sand….
At this early hour, except for a few stray dogs the beach is deserted.
Watch my video: View from my balcony in Gopalpur-on-Sea
Below my balcony, the way leading to the beach…
Some time later, I watch the same scene from my bed, but after covering my camera and bag.
Gopalpur-on-Sea is a quiet and enchanting beach destination. The sea is the main attraction. During British rule, it was a major port town conducting a flourishing rice trade with neighbouring Burma (now Myanmar). When the British left in 1947, this once vibrant seaport went back to what it originally was – a fishing village.
The view from my balcony at 6:10am…
My fellow guests seem to be fast asleep. Neither do I see any tourists out on the beach to enjoy the sunrise. Only some fishermen taking a dip in the sea.
Fishermen plying a sailboat…
Watch my video: Morning scene from my balcony in Gopalpur-on-Sea
At 7:30am, I’m downstairs to settle my bill. On making enquiries about buses to Visakhapatnam, I receive a shock. There is no bus service to Visakhapatnam! There’s just one train leaving in the morning from Behrampur station and that’s the Chennai Mail which arrives at Behrampur at 9:00am and reaches Visakhapatnam at 1:50pm. An autorickshaw is arranged to take me to the station. It costs 200 rupees.
Taking in the morning scene, I realize that this place is just a sleepy village. The rickshaw driver tells me that the morning train is the only available transportation so there will be a long queue for tickets. He suggests buying the ticket from a travel agency. In the absence of public transport, people are forced to take this train. They travel in reserved coaches because the general class coaches are usually crowded. When the TC (ticket collector) comes along, they pay him 50 rupees each. Really? But I have never offered a bribe to anyone in my life! It is wrong to travel in reserved coaches with a general ticket but like the driver says “What to do? There’s no other public transport.” (By the way, it is the only train in India with 25 coaches.)
At the travel agency, when the guy hands me my 110-rupee ticket I ask him if it’s alright to travel in reserved coaches. He nods his head. “Just pay 50 rupees to the ticket collector.” I reach the station at around 8:45am. The train is delayed. When it arrives, I hop into the nearest coach and find myself a seat. The train leaves at 9:20am. My ticket and a 50-rupee note are ready to hand in case the ticket collector enters. But he doesn’t. The train enters the state of Andhra Pradesh. I doze off only to be awakened by a tap on my shoulder. I drowsily flash out my ticket and 50-rupee note. But he’s just a curious passenger who was asleep in the upper berth till now. Minutes later, a TC shows up and asks the man seated beside me for his ticket. He doesn’t ask everyone. Nevertheless, I hand him my ticket and the 50-rupee note. Surprised, he takes the ticket and writes down a receipt for a fine of 110 rupees. Okay, so maybe its 50 rupees without receipt. I readily part with the balance amount. Foolish it may seem to pay 110 rupees when it was avoidable. But at least I have a receipt and a guilt-free conscience. The journey is enjoyable. At each station, Telugu-speaking vendors drop in with hot snacks and drinks. Thirsty, I buy a cool milk drink. Emptying it within a minute, I hand the small glass bottle to the boy. He tells me to throw it outside from the window. What??? I can’t do that. Nor can I keep it below the seat because the space is packed with luggage. My fellow passengers tell me that there’s nothing wrong in throwing out stuff. No??? After a few minutes, I take their advice. I can’t carry the empty glass bottle with me and the boy is not willing to accept it, so I fling it outside. The sound of shattering glass immediately follows.
On reaching Visakhapatnam, the first thing to do is to buy a train ticket for tomorrow to Jagdalpur, the district headquarters of Bastar in Chhattisgarh. The only train, Visakhapatnam – Kirandul Passenger leaves at 6:50am. There could be a long queue at the ticket window in the morning so I buy it right away. The ticket costs 65 rupees. Fortunately, Visakhapatnam station has a prepaid autorickshaw service. The budget hotel that I have selected is in Dwarkanagar area, near the bus station. It’s not far as the autorickshaw ride costs 35 rupees. Hotel Ritz Comfort is good but at the moment they have only higher category rooms at a rate slightly above my budget. I’m suggested to try Hotel Ginger, a short distance away. This one’s closer to the bus station. Ginger is a popular budget business hotel brand of Tata group. All their hotels widely spread across the country have a standard layout and all. The hotel manager is at the desk. He tells me his hometown is Coorg, in Karnataka. That’s because I’m wearing a cap with the name “Wild Coorg” written on it. Whatever, he isn’t giving me any discount so I’m miffed. Not only that, he asks me for an advance payment of 1847 rupees for room rent. Why, you pompous ass!!! I develop an instant dislike for the young schmuck. But it’s just a matter of one night… and a half maybe.
I plan to spend a night in Jagdalpur which is a 6-8 hours away by road. Bastar region is generally avoided by tourists because it is a hotbed of Naxalites, who are communist anti-government militants. They don’t harm tourists though. The tribes of this thickly forested region are known for their unique and distinctive tribal culture and heritage. Hence it attracts quite a number of foreign visitors. I’m looking forward to my visit to get a clear picture of this beautiful region, which appears in the news mainly for Naxalite violence. I bet these guys keep a watch on new arrivals at the railway and bus stations. Whatever, I’m taking the Visakhapatnam – Kirandul Passenger which reaches Jagdalpur at 4:00pm after stopping at 35 stations on the way. (As per new time-table, the train starts from Visakhapatnam at 7:05am and reaches Jagdalpur at 4:20pm)
The nine-hour-and-fifteen-minute train journey is highly recommended as it passes through Araku Valley, a scenic hill station that attracts tourists and nature lovers from across the country. It’s so popular that the state tourism and travel agencies offer one-day / two-day tour packages covering Araku valley and Borra Caves. This includes the train journey and return by road. Even I intend to return by road. Volvo bus services are available on this 305-km route. They depart from Jagdalpur at 10:30pm and reach Visakhapatnam at around 6:00am. The hotel manager is ready to give me 50% discount as I’ll be checking out at noon. 50% for 6 hours’ stay! It should have been more but I don’t want to waste my breath on him. After a quick lunch in my room, I make a few calls. The first to the city contact of Chhattisgarh Tourism Board. The lady at the other end assures me that Jagdalpur and the nearby tourist destinations in Bastar are very safe for tourists. But when I tell her that I’m travelling alone, she is hesitant and tells me that it would be better if I’m accompanied by someone. But I’m fine because people usually have apprehensions about females travelling solo. I have a list of 40 hotels of all categories in Jagdalpur downloaded from Chattisgarh Tourism Board’s website. There are six resorts located away from the city, and three hotels with a single room tariff above 1000 rupees. Of the three hotels, my first call is to Hotel Devansh Residency. Due to disturbance in the line, the conversation is short. The fellow answering the call is outrageously rude. He tells me that I can get all the information when I reach the hotel. The first thought in my mind is that people might be averse to tourists and hence the rudeness. I’m suddenly in two minds, whether to go to Bastar or stay back in Visakhapatnam. But I’m very close to fulfilling my dream of visiting all 29 states of India so I just cannot skip Chhattisgarh. Hotel Suri International is the expensive one of the three hotels. To my immense surprise, the phone is answered by a very well-mannered voice. It’s the hotel manager himself. He gives me all the information that I require including directions to reach the place. So that’s it! I’m eagerly looking forward to being in Bastar. I spend the evening wandering around the area, have an early dinner and then, it’s bedtime at 9:30pm.
Saturday, 23 May 2015
At 6:00am, I’m in the hotel lobby. I settle the food bills and leave some of my luggage at the hotel’s cloakroom. The autorickshaw charges 50 rupees to the station. Yesterday I paid 30 rupees for the same journey. Still, I choose not to argue. It’s an early hour and there are no other autorickshaws in sight. When I reach the station at 6:15am, the 11-coach Visakhapatnam – Kirandul Passenger is already waiting. The coaches are filled with large crowds of excited families. The lady from Chhattisgarh Tourism Board had warned me about this. Weekends see a heavy rush for the picturesque Araku Valley. After checking other general coaches, I enter one with lesser crowd. I manage to find some space to sit but at least my bag is resting comfortably on the overhead rack. The train makes a delayed start at 7:00am. It’s a four hour ride to Araku Valley where the train goes through 58 tunnels and 80 viaducts. The surroundings get noisier as the train approaches Araku Valley. From my aisle seat on the right side in the train I get a slight glimpse of the valley.
Climbing the Eastern Ghats, the train reaches 3271 feet above sea level at Shimiliguda station, the second highest Broad Gauge station in the country after Qazigund in Jammu & Kashmir. This train carries around 1000 passengers daily and covers 469 km in three states – Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Not only that, it is the only Broad Gauge train in the country that climbs from 11 metres above sea level (Visakhapatnam) to 1004 metres above sea level (Shimiliguda) in 3.5 hours. The next station is Araku. As expected, most of the passengers disembark here. Just a few villagers remain in the coach. One station later, my cell phone tells me that the train has entered Odisha. Sitting near the window, I’m charmed by the picturesque countryside and the small but clean railway stations. Hungry, I buy a packet of peanuts and a dozen juicy tadgolas (or ice-apples). At 10 rupees and 30 rupees respectively, they are extremely cheap… and good quality too. The scenic beauty is heightened by a mesmerizing locale with a reservoir. (A few hours later, I learn that this incredibly beautiful place is Kolab Dam, the main drinking water resource for the Koraput-Jeypore region. There’s a hydroelectric power plant nearby.)
It’s around 1:00pm when the train arrives at Koraput station. I’m the only one in the coach. A passing tea-seller stops at my window to tell me that the train is returning to Visakhapatnam. “You need to get down immediately. The train is returning to Visakhapatnam,” he urges. Is this some kind of joke? “There’s a mega block ahead.” He repeats the same words at the next coach. I’m flummoxed. How can they turn back the train without making any announcement? (The next day, I read in a newspaper that Naxalites have damaged railway tracks in their latest fight against the government.)
Seeing everyone getting off the train, I do the same. I know that I’m still in Odisha but I don’t know how far I’m from Jagdalpur. I’m perplexed. Now what do I do???
Coming next: East India Travel – 4: Bastar Region of Chhattisgarh