Location : A highly expeditious rickety Mumbai local train, Mumbai, India Time : 7:06:08 AM
Contrary to what the exterior of a normal Mumbai local train looks like, its speed amazes you when it revs up and pulls away from a railway station. One of my many rides in a Mumbai local was a one and a half hour journey from Mumbai to Neral, where I stood at the door of the train, holding steadfastly to the dwindling cup of fast turning lukewarm tea in one hand and the sleek steel pillar with another, looking out at the fast fading surroundings. We were outbound to Matheran, a tiny hill station near Mumbai, Maharashtra(India) and this was the first leg of our long pending expedition. You might inquire about the rationale behind my strictness in precision of the noted time. Well, a cold morning and a 1.5 hour long extremely windy train ride forced me to repeat my glances at my watch and I captured this fraction of a second on my G-shock.
My journey to Matheran started from Mumbai CST at 6:30 AM where my husband emerged victorious from the miling crowd with two tickets worth just 20 bucks after he stood in the serpentine queue for an hour. Wow! 20 bucks for a 1.5 hour train ride! Anyone from an expensive city like Bengaluru would understand my joy of travelling this cheap. Matheran had been in my travel-to list for quite a long time due to many reasons:
A) It is the smallest hill station in India, which people claim to easily cover on foot. B) Entry of vehicles is prohibited in this place. So, all you get to see is a rustic surrounding and breathe cleaner air. C) Journey from Mumbai to Matheran is more interesting than the destination. So, new experience and new journal to capture.I have divided the journey into 3 sections as you will be following in my blog. D) All of the above. Well, I have never felt the need of a reason to travel.
So, there I was, Standing at Mumbai CST, 7 Am this foggy morning, cupping a mug of a steaming cardamom tea in this biting cold. The thing that I observed about Mumbai locals is that, when you barge into one, you need to be alert, caution – Really alert. It saves you from the misery of two losses:
1. Money – It prevents Pickpockets from sneaking out wallets from your back pockets 2. Train – It enables you to catch these impatient local trains, who refuse to wait for you, any more than 10 seconds on one platform and when an entire swarm of people decide to board the same train through the same door. Phew!
Soon, we found ourselves ready, all geared up to board this local train to Neral. I was prepared to cover this long journey of 1.5 hours, standing in this train, as local trains are usually packed with people but to my pleasant surprise, I could secure a seat for both my husband and I, as not many people were as enthusiastic as us to travel, this cold morning. Neral welcomed us with a warm sunshine and a batch of tempo drivers, who in an attempt to display their marketing skills, lugged us to their respective vehicles.
The second leg of our journey was Neral to Aman Lodge. Aman lodge, which is roughly 7 kms away from Neral has to be covered by a road trip as the pathway primarily cuts through the upper part of hills. A toy train also covers the route but it is non functional most of the times. Did I forget to mention that Neral would also welcome you with a multitude of Vada Pav sellers sitting right in front of the railway station frying hot potato patties, slicing fresh pieces of bun, stuffing it in with a fried chilly, a dash of sauce, and wrapping it up in a piece of old newspaper before they shove it in your hands.
Neral to Aman lodge is an amazing 8 kms drive up on the hills. Topsy turvy curves and numerous hairpin bends later, when you analyze your position, its a new high. Thrusting your lives into the hands of expert drivers who drift through the bends like a cakewalk is the only alternate to trusting your legs to take you all the way up. Yeah! Some people do trek all the way uphill. But, I was enjoying the speed and the blast of wind on my face at each bend. So, trekking was not an option for me. As soon as we reached Aman Lodge, we were again welcomed by a hoard of horse riders, pulling us towards their horses for an expensive ride on horse back. These horses were our drivers for the last leg of our journey.
Third and the last leg of our journey started from Aman lodge towards Matheran. Aman Lodge is located further uphill at a distance of 3kms from Matheran. Again, there are multiple modes of transport from Aman Lodge to Matheran.
People can opt to ride on a horse back, take a human cart, take a toy train ride or hike uphill for the last 3kms. We opted to hike, since 3kms did not scare us And, boy, did we take the right decision? The views on that hike are gorgeous. Shaved off hillsides and pretty gorges look straight out of a picture postcard. There’s a toy train railway line cutting through thick shrubbery, which acts as a guide on your way to Matheran. Some parts of the journey are like live excerpts from Ruskin Bond stories. Green and Serene, flanked by gorgeous hills on one side and a roughly cut hill wall on the other.As Matheran is located at the top of the hill, the trail is formed by chopping off slopes of the hill. Suddenly, you are hit by a realization that you are actually walking straight inside a hill. With that amusing thought, we reach Matheran, the smallest hill station In India. Matheran market is dotted with a plethora of hawkers selling footwear, trinkets, sweets and Maggi. Maggi is a huge hit with vendors selling about 50 kinds of unheard and never tried before Maggi recipes. All the trek had made us hungry and we greedily gobbled up a bowl of hot cheesy noodles before heading out to our resort.
Matheran is exquisite. Far from the madding crowd, perched on a sleepy hillock, its a peace resort. What makes it unique, is the prohibition on entry of vehicles in the town. Which means, clean air and clearer skies. You can explore the city on a horse back or opt to walk all over the place. Pitter-Patter of horse hooves is all the noise you listen to while walking in this small town, which is definitely better than the sounds of honking horns and screeching brakes. There are certain view points on all sides of this hill station which offers valley views from different angles. Post a quick snack and refreshments, my husband and I set on our foot to discover this tiny riddling place. Its like a puzzle. You need to figure out the routes to the view points and find them out. In a quest to reach the destination, as you walk through the winding green streets, out of blue appears a view, so pretty and scintillating, you suddenly find yourself standing at the edge of a hill, stopping by for hours to admire this countenance of nature. The resort handed us a rough map with certain view points marked on it and rough routes to the same from the resort. That set us on a day long hike and I can safely say, it was one of the best days in my life. Two living creations of nature that you abundantly find here, are Trees and Monkeys. The place is full of huge, tall, green trees which have stood guarding the place for hundreds of years, being the only witnesses of this slow changing hill station. Twirling roads are covered with dry leaves, piling up with each dash of wind and it makes a soft pathway to step on.
And Monkeys! Well, I have never found monkeys in such abundance as I have spotted them in Matheran. They are there to welcome you, accompany you and then see you off. Friends in thick and thin. Just one friendly warning – Do not try berries while you hike. They believe in sharing food. Another interesting fact was the presence of a lot of dilapidated structures which looked like they sure housed a lot of ghosts. Spooky! Locals are very helpful in guiding you to places. So, if you have a muddled direction sense like me, worry not. You wont get lost. Well, personally it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least, even if I had gone lost in this green heaven.
It was a pleasant afternoon when we decided to call it a day on reaching a certain hilltop from where the sun also looked tired and all ready to call it a day. And that was where I overheard a few locals talking about a hilltop, popular by the name of sunset point. The more I overheard them, the more I wanted to feel the place. I wanted to assert them, to make sure they were not lying. All my reasons of being at that place at the exact time of sunset were mere excuses. I knew I had to be there at that perfect moment. But, it was already 5. The Sun, like Mumbai local has always been the impatient one. It was going down in 15 minutes. A minute of delay can prove fatal. 15 minutes and 3 kms! I could see the point from my spot. It was located at a higher elevation on the other side of this hill. How I wished I had a parachute! My husband’s prediction and protests fell on my deaf ears, as I caught hold of his wrist and we started our run. Marathon in Mathe-run, oops Matheran! And horses! When I do not need any, I find a group of them, idling away at the hill slopes, whisking flies with their hairy tails but in times of need, not one seemed to be around. So, yes, we ran. We ran through the lush greens, we ran through the leafy streets, we ran beside the brooklets and we crossed a clean lake on our way. All the while, I kept a tab on the mocking sun, which sure kept us company but diminishing its radiation with each passing second. A short cut here, a climb on the hills, a few missed steps, heavy breath and with raging heart beats, we reached the sunset point. Yes! We made it. The sun was a deep orange, and had snuggled between the curves of two sister hills.It painted the neighboring cloud with a lighter hue. It was surreal.
The spot was so high, I had to lower my gaze to see the sun. I saw the valleys and the lower slopes, an outline of the cascading hills, a myriad of swaying, sleepy trees. I heard the tumbling springs, slow chirp of nesting birds, hooting monkeys and the dying whisper of silence.
But, do you know what dominated all of these? The overpowering sound of winds. The winds whistled through the tall, green trees, rustled the leaves, caressed the earth before it brushed my hair. The quietest of moments came into being when the winds took a momentary pause. So much in the surrounding, and yet, a lull. A silence so deep, it cannot be framed in words. So peaceful. I realized that it was an undying craving for moments like these that take me places. Memorable moments of perpetual contentment.
This is all I remember and this most certainly will be one of the most prominent memories on my last day. I gazed at the orange skies for quite some time. The orange sun looked weary but happy. With a glow of satisfaction,it slipped into oblivion, scattering behind a trail of soft light that ensured the dawn of a lovely evening.