The Chalukya to Bangalore
Mumbai to Bangalore via Miraj is the route that is less travelled. There are 5 trains a week from Bombay to the Bangalore area on that route, compared to 19 trains a week on the route via Guntakal. For non-railway folks, both Miraj and Guntakal are no-name towns, but they are good sized railway junctions, and the railways get to name trains. So, the Chalukya express from Mumbai is deemed to go to Bangalore via Miraj, although it touches a number of better known towns.
The route actually follows the NH 4 road to Bangalore, except at Miraj! The National Highway touches (actually takes a bypass - via Kolhapur), instead of Miraj. But the other towns on the route are basically the same; Lonavla, Pune, Satara, Karad, Belgaum, Hubli, Davangere, Arsikere and Tumkur.
The scene outside is far better than on the dusty and dry route via Guntakal. After Pune, there are the greener parts of Southern Maharashtra, and after the top of the ghats at Londa, there are some nice, thick forested areas as we pass Alnavar. The parts of Karnataka that the route goes through are fertile crop bearing regions and not the water starved Gulbarga localities (although at the time we were passing through, Hubli and other areas were severely short of water and were considered for cloud seeding). The route is also shorter than the Guntakal by a few kilometers. So why is the other one prefered (by a score of 19 to 5)? Historical reasons of how the railway network evolved. That route had a shorter metre gauge section, from Guntakal to Bangalore, and that was converted to broad gauge earlier, providing for a direct service from Mumbai to Bangalore, and that legacy continues.
The Chalukya left Dadar, where S and I caught it, on time, at 22.50. Too late to do anything interesting even at platform 4 at Dadar. S insisted that the platform announcements were totally ineffective and pointless. I drew her attention to the voice of Mumbai's suburban network, the lady who cheerfully announces through automated means, the arrival of thousands of trains on the Central Railway network. This voice is loved for its persistence and occasionally cursed for its irrelevance, but this lady and her voice are the steady companions of Mumbai's commuters.
We had placed orders for the standard breakfast options with the linen attendant, who doubled as the catering rep, in the absence of a pantry car. A quick peek at Karad to see if anything was on at that early hour, about 6.00 a.m. Nothing. Sangli station too short a halt.
At Miraj, which is really a suburb of the bigger district town Sangli, we checked out what was available. Apart from idli vada and bread omelet, we spotted the appropriate banana and the less appropriate guava as fruit options.
We realized that AC 2 Tier is not the best place to hop off on to the platform and forage for food, as the itinerant vendors give the AC coaches a miss. Their first choice is the unreserved coaches (higher density of people), then the sleeper coaches (with reasonable numbers of people and open windows and the possibility of commerce through the bars). The occasional AC passenger who gets off and samples platform food is not enough to attract the attention of the platform vendor. However, we kept a keen eye open for what was on offer and did not miss much, we think.
Breakfast served in the coach, after Miraj, was a double helping of Mumbai restaurant style idli vada (2 nos each) with chatni for Rs 15. The platform served idli vada Bangalore style, i.e. two idlis and one vada. Our idli vada was disappointingly cold, perhaps because we were almost at one end of the AC coach. Vada was decent and idli so-so and the chatni expectedly had too much pottukadalai to be a gourmet item. Somewhere in the archives of railway writings is recorded the wrath of the platform stall-owner when he noticed the apprentice serving unwatered, thick, pungent chatni to unsuspecting customers. Losing his cool and in front of customers, he shouted to the boy to water the chatni down immediately. "How do you think we are going to make any money at all, you ***?" was his unapolegetic argument.
The other part of the breakfast was the Rs 17 bread omelet, almost warm and not bad, with four barely toasted slices of sweet bread. The food was served in plastic packs, but with really thin paper plates to hold the stuff in. The platform food had sturdier newsprint thickness to support the food.
The tea from dripping canisters, usually have a plastic milk bag firmly in place between the lid and the main container, to seal it and it seems to work. The current style of a sweetened milk-water mixture, poured into small size plastic cups, with tea bags, is not as good as pre-made tea, but serves the purpose. This way, the spurious freshness of tea and flexibility of tea/coffee is maintained. We had our 50 ml of milky, sweet tea with Taj Mahal bags.
At Ghataprabha station, we spotted an old man, straight out of bed, judging from his striped pyjamas and sleepy gait, hawking pedhas. Not too enthusiastically, but he was awake enough to make a beeline for the unreserved coaches at the end of trains in search of kids who were awake and needed pacifying and quietening with a sweet offering. Another vendor was offering evil looking mixed sev and boondi with lemon. The boondi was an unnatural Fanta coloured orange. He also had groundnuts on offer.
Belgaum and Dharwad both offer milk sweets at various points in processing. Belgaum has the sticky mass called kunda, offered at Rs 25 for 200 gm. Even here, branded varieties have appeared. Dharwad, later in the day was one step further, giving us the regional pedhas made by the statewide Nandini franchise.
Belgaum station had a couple of fruit juice stalls which seem popular in that part of the world. Bright coloured thick plastic glasses with quick service. We wanted mosambi juice but the only one available quickly was pineapple and after the Cuddapah experience, I agreed quickly. The juice was sweet and slightly watered down, but what isn't, on platforms, these days?
In the mild melee for the fruit juice, we were too late to grab a proper vada pao. S hypothesised that this was the last point that we would get a proper vada pao, as we got past the Maharashtra border. More about that later. Getting into the coach, we tried a glistening masala wada, which was cool to touch and turned out to be slightly undercooked. Considering all this, it was not bad to taste! Watery chatni.
At Londa, we again spotted vada pao (this was the last time) and tried it. The pao was large and good, but the vada was not batatavada, but was a pack of unexciting Mysore bondas (six nos, served with one green chili) and the entire combo did not quite hit the spot.
A meal on an earlier journey on the return Chalukya at Londa was quite nice. Idli vada chatni, warm and served with nice chatni in a gleaming, round, steel container. This time around, lunch, loaded on the train at Londa was quite a disappointment. Rs 30 for a spicy usal type vegetable, with french beans, onion, peas, vatana and coconut - thickish, salty, tuar dal, and 4 puris. A large serving of undercooked rice and sour dahi and the water in the poly bag rounded off the unimpressive meal.
Dharwad station had nice guavas at various stages of ripeness and we were able to select a couple to our liking.
As the afternoon and evening progressed, we tuned out from the surroundings and instead concentrated on the chivda, khakra and the very excellent plum cake from Mumbai. In Bangalore for a late dinner (dinner is not served on the train).
All in all, we did not starve for want of food. Plenty of food and plenty of variety, but none too inspiring.