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Visakpatnam, February 24, 2020
Visakhapatnam, or Vizag as it is popularly known, is a place I spent my early childhood in -- from age 5-9 -- and I had always wanted to return to the city to revive some fantastic memories of those years.
Some five decades after leaving the place, I travelled with my family to Vizag for five days in mid-August and it was truly a memorable experience.
Vizag, a port city in Andhra Pradesh on India's east coast, is surrounded by the Eastern Ghats on three sides and faces the Bay of Bengal on the fourth, which means it has several long and fascinating beaches. In these 50 years and more, it has, obviously, grown beyond recognition into a large, modern city but many of the charming old landmarks still remain along with several new attractions. Overall, it is a destination worthy of a visit and it was heartening to see the large numbers of tourists from all over India swarming all over the city's many places of interest.
Not being located on one of the "trunk" routes, Visakhapatnam is not always an automatic choice for people drawing up travel plans, like some of the other big cities are. But not many people realise that it is not only the most populous city in Andhra Pradesh or also one of the most populous in South India and in India as a whole. It is also one of the largest cities in India and one of the biggest contributors to the country's GDP. It is also set to soon become the administrative capital of Andhra Pradesh.
The city has had a chequered history through the ages, from being a part of the Kalinga kingdom and then controlled by the Chola dynasty and the Gajapati kingdom before coming under the Vijayanagara empire in the 15th century, the Mughals in the 16th century, Europeans later, French rule by the end of the 18th century and the British from 1804 onwards until independence in 1947.
Vizag has the only natural harbour on India's east coast and is home to the oldest shipyard in the country. The Indian Navy's Eastern Command is headquartered there, it has the country's fifth-busiest port and it is a major railway junction.
Apart from a steel plant and a refinery, which have existed for some decades now, Vizag is now also a major centre for IT, pharma, ferro alloy and fintech companies.
All this means that it is one of the richest and most cosmopolitan cities in India and one of the fastest growing cities in the world.
One of the main attractions near Vizag is the Araku Valley, a hill station in the Eastern Ghats, about 110 km west of the city in an area predominantly inhabited by various tribes and close to the border with Odisha.
It is an area rich in biodiversity and has, among other things, acres of coffee plantations. It is well connected both by road and by rail -- through the Kothavalasa-Kirandul railway line of the East Coast Railway. Both options make for picturesque journeys.
Among the most popular attractions in Araku Valley are the Borra Caves in the Ananthagiri hills. The caves, among the largest in the country and located at an elevation of more than 700 metres, offer a breathtaking view of a variety of speleothems and irregularly shaped stalactites and stalagmites. Coloured lights set up by the authorities add to the experience.
For me, it was a nostalgia trip, my father having worked on the famous Dandakaranya-Bolagir-Kiriburu (DBK) Railway project that linked Visakhapatnam to Borra, Araku and beyond. The second half of the 100-odd km line from Visakhapatnam to Araku has scores of tunnels and, as a child, I had accompanied my father to the construction sites of some of the tunnels. So, it was important for me to make the train journey from Vizag to Araku.
(For those interested in such matters, the Indian Railways had taken up the DBK project in 1960 to link mines near Visakhapatnam and in Odisha to the Visakhapatnam port. It is considered as one of the best examples of a special purpose vehicle that completed its work without any time and cost overruns. DBK was short form for the Dandakaranya-Bolangir-Kiriburu project.)
So, if you plan to travel to Araku from Vizag, there are any number of options such as one-day or two-day road trips organised by the state tourism corporation and private tour operators.
Another option would be to book yourself in the Vistadome coach -- an executive AC chair car -- that is attached to the 58501 Visakhapatnam-Kirandul Passenger train. There is only one such coach in the train (in fact, there are only two coaches on the Indian Railways) and that means that you have to make your bookings weeks in advance.
For those who have not travelled by Vistadome coaches, it can be an unforgettable experience, with their large windows, partly-glass roof and observation lounge providing a panoramic view to passengers. The wide reclining seats can be rotated 360 degrees and add to the fun.
Apart from the view from your seat, you can also spend time in the lounge at the rear. Being the last coach of the train, the lounge affords you a breathtaking 180 degree view of the landscape on both sides. And it is also a space where you can strike up conversation with fellow-travellers. There are also enough vendors of coffee, tea and snacks.
As I said, it is good to plan this trip out properly and make some efforts to gather as many details as possible about the places to visit. It is only when we were actually on the train that we realised that, though we had bought tickets up to Araku, we needed to get down at Borra because it is very close to the Borra Caves. This meant that we had to plan to get off in a bit of a hurry.
At Borra, we then faced the challenge of hiring a local car for moving around. Touts start accosting you as soon as you alight from the train. It was a hot day and, as the sun beat upon us, we managed to strike a deal with one car driver -- Rs 4,000 for a Toyota Innova for showing us all the places of interest in the area and then dropping us off at Araku station in time for the train journey back. The amount left us in a bit of a shock but we had no option at that stage.
Once in the car, the driver happily informed us that he could not switch on the air-conditioner, because it was hilly terrain and the car could not take the load, etc. But we took a firm stand and had that sorted out quickly.
The first stop was the Borra caves, a short distance from the station. The visit to the caves, discovered in 1807 by William King George of the Geological Survey of India, can be a fascinating experience. Electric lamps installed by the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Department, add to the magic of the formations. You can climb hundreds of steps down for closer views but, not being sure about our ability to manage the climb back to the top, we opted out as far as that was concerned. But the view from the top, near the mouth of the caves, is worth the hours of travelling.
There are guided tours arranged by the Tourism Department and private operators from Vizag and other places to the Araku Valley to the caves and other attractions such as the Tyada Railway Tunnel, Damuku View Point, Ananthagiri Coffee Plantation, Tribal Museum and Padmapuram Gardens and the Kothapally waterfalls.
Our driver drove us through the area and to some of the spots of interest. We did not spend much time anywhere, because we had to catch the train back from Araku and also had to eat lunch. We stopped near a coffee plantation and had refreshing coffee at one of the scores of wayside stalls. We also picked up some packets of coffee and spices to carry back home. There are also places you can stop at on the way for some spectacular views of the valley.
We stopped at a restaurant in Araku for lunch, which was reasonably good. At the end of all that, we still had some time on our hands, but opted to go to the Araku station and relax there. The train back was due at 1545 and we had an hour to go. We sent the driver on his way back to Borra and we went into the station.
The station was a very neat and inviting place -- much better than what we expected, and full marks to the East Coast Railway for maintaining it well. There were nice benches on the platform and also a couple of waiting halls. The waiting halls were, however, uninviting, and the toilets there were locked. After looking all over the place, I finally went up to a station official and asked him if something could be done about toilets. He said they are under repair, but he agreed to open one room used by staff so that the ladies could use the toilets there. He made it clear that he was doing this only for the ladies and the men in our group would have to fend for themselves.
We did not worry too much about this because the train was due after some time and the Vista Dome coach had clean toilets.
When I went to return the key of that room to the official, he casually inquired if we had booked our tickets to Vizag. I said, yes, we had. And are the tickets confirmed? Of course, they are, I said. "Oh!" he said. "Why do you say that?" I asked. "Nothing, except that the train is running late," he said.
To cut a long story short, it was Independence Day, and the train reaches Araku after passing through some Naxalite areas, and there had been a threat, and there were lots of checks, etc being carried out to ensure the tracks were not damaged, and all that was causing a delay.
That was not something we had bargained for. There was no refreshments stall at the station and, not knowing how long we would have to wait, we went out of the station and found shops nearby from where we picked up some mineral water bottles and biscuits. At the station, the platform was now getting pretty crowded and there were no vacant spaces on the benches. Many people, obviously tired from their exertions, had stretched out on some of the benches.
Several of the passengers could be seen taking long walks up and down the length of the platform. At least some of them, I suspect, were looking for toilets.
The station official said the train was expected in one hour, then two, three. As the light began to fade, I began to worry that the train might not turn up at all and was not sure if there was any hotel nearby where we could stay for the night. The official tried to help us by walking outside the station with us and looking for a cab that could take us to Vizag, but none was available.
Anyway, the train finally arrived and we were soon on our way. By the time we reached Vizag, it was midnight, about four hours late. We rang up our hotel during the journey and they kept some warm food for us, though it was past the restaurant hours.
Which brings me to the hotel we had chosen -- Fortune Inn Sree Kanya in Dwarka Nagar, a part of the ITC Group of hotels.
I chose it because of its location -- close to where we lived in Visakhapatnam five decades ago. But all the travel sites will tell you that it is one of the best choices you can make in the city -- very close to the railway station, not very far from the airport and close to many of the other important points in the city, including the beaches, the picturesque Uplands area and many other places of interest.
We had interacted with the hotel's general manager while making our bookings and he had promised to make our stay comfortable. He and his team did that and much more, going out of their way to understand our peculiar needs and make it a memorable experience for us. The rooms were very comfortable and well-maintained and the food was good, both in the restaurant and in room service.
For local sight-seeing, we took cars from the hotel on a few occasions, though that can be a little expensive. We also hired from local cab companies (whom we found on the internet) and used Uber quite a bit. Many cab companies hire out cars for a minimum of 12 hours and that makes them very costly.
Vizag has many long beaches, incuding the Ramakrishna beach, Rushikonda, Yarada, Bheemli, Lawson's Bay and Gangavaram.
Apart from the beaches, we went up to Kailashgiri and took the toy train ride there -- a 20-minute journey that gives you an amazing 360-degree view of the city from the comfort of an air-conditioned coach. For those interested, there is also a ropeway there.
At RK Beach, many of the tourist attractions are within walking distance of each other, including the Aquarium, the INS Kursura Submarine Museum (highly recommended for those who have not been inside a submarine) and the TU 142 Aircraft Museum opposite it. The aquarium can be fun if you have children with you, though even the adults in our group found it fascinating.
The INS Kursura Submarine Museum is a must-see. Kursura was a Kalvari-class diesel-electric submarine of the Indian Navy, which participated in the India-Pakistan War of 1971 and in many naval exercises with other nations, before becoming decommissioned in February 2001 after 31 years of service. She is now preserved as a museum -- the first such facility in South Asia -- in very much its original form. Retired naval personnel serve as guides and the curator in the museum. It receives a few hundred visitors every day.
We also visited the St John's Church -- built in 1844, making it the third oldest church in Vizag!!! -- and drove through most parts of the city, including Uplands and past many well-known landmarks like the King George Hospital, many old schools and some old theatres such as Leela Mahal, where I had seen movies in my childhood.
Other places of interest include Dolphin's Nose, which offers a spectacular view of the Bay of Bengal, the Simhachalam temple, the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park and the Fishing Harbour, among many others.
We ate at some local restaurants, including the famous Kamat restaurant at Lawson Bay, famous for its biryanis and sea food. The place was a bit crowded when we reached there for lunch and we had to wait for a while, but the food was worth it.
Vizag is also good for shopping -- and there are any number of saree and jewellery stores all over the place. We also spent some time at the CMR Central Mall, which has a nice food court, good shopping options and amusement facilities for children.
We visited the two schools I went to in Vizag and, though it was a holiday, the security personnel at the gates at both places were kind enough to let us enter and wander around. It was an amazing feeling, seeing those old buildings, classrooms, corridors, grounds and so on.
I must also tell you that we spent hours walking around in Dwarka Nagar to locate the house and locality we used to live in in the early 1960s -- but the place has changed so dramatically that I just could not find my bearings. Where there were just a few buildings, there are now thousands. There was no one I could ask and had to operate entirely from my childhood memory. It did not quite work out. Maybe another time.