The Bandra-Bhuj Express

“Pow pow pow!”
The small plastic gun clicked and whirred incessantly as a restless young boy in the opposite seat pressed the trigger for the hundredth time.  His mother, resolutely silent with fading mehendi patterns on her hands and feet, continued to gaze out of the window.

It was a long ride.

As the clock approached midnight the night before, we had clambered aboard the Bandra to Bhuj Express in Mumbai.  My expert travel companion Neha of Matsya Crafts and I had earlier got to know each other over steaming hot uttapam, blocking the aisle of a narrow south Indian food joint on Hill Road with our backpacks stuffed full in anticipation of the adventure - well-trodden ground for Neha, but my first time in both Gujarat state and the mesmerising region of Kutch.

Having boarded the train at what was definitely bedtime, passengers didn't waste a single minute in folding down upper berths and unpacking starched white sheets from the neatly branded paper bag of Indian Railways linen doled out to every bunk.  Once the ticket examiner had done his rounds, confirming everyone was making themselves comfy exactly where they should be, heads hit pillows and the gentle motion of the train rocked us to sleep as we powered northwards.

Indian Railways tea

“CHAIII... chaiii... Nescafe!”
“Idli sambar!”
“Chai... chai... chaiiiii!”

Good morning.  I hadn't fallen out of my bunk.

Daylight had broken in Gujarat and all manner of breakfast treats and flasks of sweet, milky tea and coffee were being paraded up and down the aisle as we rattled onwards between small stations.  As fellow passengers stirred around us, bunks were clipped up to make seating space; in an attempt to feel presentable I washed my face and brushed my teeth at the end of the carriage where tiny track-side towns slid past the large open windows.

Toto, we're not in Bombay anymore.
 

The shifting landscape was captivating.  Gujarat produces 70% of India's salt, and the vast flat pans spread out for miles around us as birds stalked the briny pathways in between.  Like a smirking schoolchild I couldn't resist checking Google Maps for our vicinity to the fabulously named Wild Ass Sanctuary and vowed to return for that photo op one of these days - though Maps has sadly since renamed it the rather more pedestrian Wild Life Sanctuary, which doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

As we tucked into Neha's delicious homemade lemon rice for breakfast, gigantic salt factories loomed in and out of view beyond our neighbours' Thermos flask of tea, and all of a sudden there were CAMELS!  Actual camels!  This city girl's mind was thoroughly blown.  White-turbaned men herded goats across the pale, biscuit-coloured landscape dotted with scrubby olive-green bushes while super-sized electricity pylons and wind turbines punctuated the horizon.  More salt pans, with seams of snowy, glittery white glinting in the morning sun where the crystals had dried.

Salt production in Kutch

And so it went on: this is India, and you can never underestimate just how vast a land it is.  Or how likely it is your train might happen to run late.  Breakfast was a fading memory and lunch an increasingly consuming thought as the Express pulled into Gandhidham Junction, a tantalisingly short hour away from our final stop of Bhuj... in theory.  On the platform, the Yashoda M Shetty Refreshment Tea Stall was festooned with warm bottles of neon orange mango drink and miniature packets of potato crisps in exotic flavours.  I resisted.  Foolish.

Slender black dogs strolled around their patch and curled up in the shade of Mr Shetty's Tea Stall, perhaps dreaming of an over-stuffed samosa falling unnoticed from the counter.  The samosa never came, and they got bored of their dreams and moved on.  15 minutes until we reach Bhuj, said the idealistic train schedule.  And half an hour later, there we were, still on the Gandhidham Junction platform.

“Pow... pow... pow!”
The plasticky toy whirred into action again.
Somewhere behind my ear, Oreo packets squeaked and rustled open.  Cookies crunched loudly without the rhythmic hum of the train in motion to muffle the mouthfuls.  Boredom snackers.  My people.

So nearly there.
So very close.
Bhuj, Kutch, lunch... I'm coming for you.

 

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