Nilgiri Mountain Railway train waits to depart from Ketti Station. The locomotive is No.37384. 26th February 2005 Photographer - A.M.Hurrell Camera - Minolta X700 (35mm film)

The Toy Train That Runs From Ooty to Coonoor

Ever since Shahrukh Khan danced atop a train for the famous song, Chhaiya Chhaiya from the movie Dil Se, toy trains have created a romantic idea of a train journey through the hills for me. When I recently got a chance to travel in the Nilgiri Mountain Railway that runs from Ooty or Udhagamandalam to Mettupalayam in Tamil Nadu, I felt like that childish romantic ideal was coming true.

 

I have travelled on the Neral Matheran toy train before as a child. Matheran is a cosy hill station close to Mumbai. That delight experienced was altogether different back then as I was only a kid who was simply excited by any prospect of travel, any prospect of being away from home and homework! Now, all grown up and supposedly an adult, travelling in a toy train is like bringing out, to be very clichéd, the inner child in you, to have the luxury of marveling at the train and its compartments itself, at the lush views and the fragrant eucalyptus forests; to stick your head your head out like a fearless child for a quintessential toy train photo while feeling the cool breeze graze your cheek.

Perhaps simply the word, toy train, is supposed to help us channelize our hidden childlike wonder!

 

1024px-Udhagamandalam_or_Ooty_railway_station_14.jpg
Ooty railway station in Nilgiri Mountain Railway, Tamil Nadu | Credit – Pinakpani

 

While I remember being utterly awestruck when travelling in the Matheran toy train because it was so different from the trains we are used to traveling in, part of my reaction to travelling in the Nilgiri Mountain Railway also included absorbing the historical tidbits of the train and the colonial stations it winds its way through.
As a child, I do not think I would have been impressed or even fathomed the age of the Matheran toy train but years later, knowing that the NMR has been running for over 100 years did transport me to a time when Coonoor and Ooty would have been just tiny specks of hill towns, with British people milling about amidst verdant forests to escape the heat, while the locals went about their daily lives.

 

Everything about this toy train ride was filled with excitement: from seeing it chugging into the station, to gaping at the antique engine, from boarding the train to hearing the final whistle blow! I caught the train from Ooty and was going to get off at Coonoor. The train’s ultimate destination was Mettupalayam near Coimbatore. In the seat opposite mine, was a family of three: parents and a daughter. I think I saw myself in that little girl, since I was as excited to be on the blue train of these blue mountains. As it slowly left the Ooty Station, I could hardly contain the thrill!

 

It snaked its way through the forests and the heady smell of the eucalyptus trees was overpowering. The most childlike happiness came from the girl sitting opposite me when she pulled out like a magic wand a bubble toy and blew bubbles in the air! Her father also joined her! At least it wasn’t only me whose inner child was roused in this ride! So ephemerally beautiful the bubbles were; floating away oblivious to the vistas below.

 

Passing under tunnels and navigating the bendy loops were the other highlights. Tunnels had all the passengers screaming in delight while the sharp bends in the route made us look at the train’s snaking figure and its contrasting beauty of blue against all the green.

 

The signage at Mettupalayam Railway Station, the start point of NMR. With an elevation of 325.2 meters above MSL from here, the train climbs for 5 hours a total of 42 kms to Ooty with 2203 meters elevation. |
The signage at Mettupalayam Railway Station, the start point of NMR. With an elevation of 325.2 meters above MSL from here, the train climbs for 5 hours a total of 42 kms to Ooty with 2203 meters elevation. | Credit – Gcheruvath

 

The entire train ride was steeped in the whimsical. Even the names of the train stations on the way brought out an old world charm. The first stop after Ooty was Lovedale. As expected, the station was miniscule, quaint, one of those that are stuck in time with their beautiful bright blue buildings and benches and the typical germanium flowers. All the stations (Ketti, Aravankadu, and Wellington) after that possessed a similar aura; they felt like they came straight out of a Ruskin Bond novel. They were frozen in time. Each time the train came to a halt at a station, the engine doors would open with the red flags waving and people would joyfully peer out to take in the views. As the train would depart, dozens of green flags were waved and you could hear the train whistle. All these were signals for the train’s departure. When was the last time you actually witnessed trains arriving and departing to the signal of flags? I couldn’t recall. I think I must have read about it in Malgudi Days! And so, it was amazing to actually witness it.

 

This is why travelling in the toy train feels like you are going back in time, not just to your childhood but also to a world where times were easier and simpler. The toy train gave me the space to be like a child again and to dip in a bit of nostalgia. Getting off at Coonoor, I felt absolutely satisfied. I took in the narrow criss-crossing railway tracks, the blue doors of the train all open, the vast blue skies and the teeming exciting crowds on the platform.

 

 

Cover Image: Nilgiri Mountain Railway train waits to depart from Ketti Station. The locomotive is No.37384. 26th February 2005 Photographer – A.M.Hurrell Camera – Minolta X700 (35mm film)

 

Of Toy Trains and Tunnels – Kalka To Shimla

Growing up in pre-millennial era, train travel was an inescapable part of holidaying. Almost every holiday started at the station. The bags were stuffed under the berths. Dad and uncles haggled with the coolies and we kids squabbled over the top berths. Finally, after a whistle and one lurch back and one lurch forward, the train rolled out. I loved that backward-forward motion and always exaggerated it a bit, it was the signal to the start of the holiday.

 

Were the trains less dirty in those days? Were the seats unstained with who-knows-what? Were my olfactory organs under-performing and I could use the loos without gagging? Perhaps my childlike senses had yet to develop to the hyper discerning level they are at now. Perhaps, I just didn’t care. In the last twenty years, train travel has not figured in my holiday plans. Air travel has become affordable. It is faster – every moment counts when there are only that many days you can take off work. But that’s not it. In all honesty, I’d rather change my destination than board a long-distance train. Snooty? Guilty as charged.

 

So, I surprise myself more than anyone else when I opt to take the train from Kalka to Shimla, popularly known as the toy train. Besides the rave reviews – most scenic train journey in India, exceptional panoramic views, and the likes – I am also wary of going by road for two reasons. One, I am not sure I have the stomach for the curvy mountainous road. And two, I have visions of the car tumbling down the hillside, splattering my bones and brains on the pine trees. Yes, I am morbid like that. 

 

Kalka to Shimla
Kalka to Shimla

 

All pros and cons weighed, I find myself at the Kalka station pre-sunrise. It’s a brrrry cold morning and I am layered up such that I have more clothes on me than in my suitcase. The station, almost gleaming clean, is a pleasant surprise and takes the edge off the cold. The train brings me shivering back to reality. Positives – the floral artwork on the bogey is cute, wood-panelled interiors are nice-ish and the pendulum-like seat backs can be slid to change direction. Negative – stained seats (why have we not yet discovered a solution for this?) and the characteristic grimy-ness associated with Indian trains. And the loo? I don’t intend to find out. The bowels and bladder have been emptied and I intend to keep them that way till I reach my hotel in Shimla. 

 

The first hour and a half passes in darkness interrupted by the occasional cluster of lights indicating human settlement. Not much to see outside, I Netflix and chill. It’s an hour and a half later that the first rays of the sun light up the vista that the Shivalik Express has been chugging through. And, all the accolades I had read on blogs in the weeks preceding this journey race through my head like a ticker tape. The sky is the perfect blend of dawn colours. The tree trunks are hanging on to the sloping hills at near precise angles. The route has many sharp curves and since I am in the middle bogey, there are times when I can see both the head and the tail of my train. The narrow gauge line that connects Kalka to Shimla was laid in 1903. It passes through 103 tunnels and crosses over 900+ bridges in the five hours it takes to cover a distance of 96 kilometre and ascend 1400 metre in altitude. 

20191229075433_IMG_6883

 

A little over two hours after it started from Kalka, the Shivalik Deluxe goes through the longest of the 103 tunnels. The Barog tunnel is a little over a kilometre long and takes 2.5 minutes to cross. At the other end of the Barog tunnel is Barog station. A row of squat buildings make up the station. The walls of all the buildings are whitewashed, the gables, accents and door-window shades are painted a cornflower blue and the rooftops are post-box red. Picture perfect. The train halts for 15 minutes for the attendants to load the bogeys with packed breakfasts, the standard Rajdhani fare of bread-cutlet or bread-omelette. The passengers stream out to stretch their legs and click the obligatory selfies. 

 

20191229075329_IMG_6882

 

The next leg of the journey all the way to Shimla is without any unscheduled stops. Many stations pass us by and the colour scheme of blue, white and red roofs is consistent. Some are adorned with quaint blue benches, others with pots of geraniums. At one station, a branch laden with bright pink flowers is angled across a wall with such precision that it is difficult to believe coincidence of nature could have achieved it without human intervention. Both, the parry that came up with this colour palette and the one that ensured its application need to be eulogized. 

IMG_20191229_094109

 

Unfortunately, it does not seem that they were allowed to apply their exceptional taste and influence on the towns that dot the hills. The houses are stacked like a toddler would stack his first set of Lego bricks without thought to colour, design, or symmetry, the kind that would only win applause from doting parents. Hoardings advertising lodges, products and services add to the cacophony of colours. The hillside along the rail-track which for the first leg had only been covered in vegetation is now speckled with wrappers, plastic bottles, discarded garments, and other ugly odds and ends. I suspect as man runs out of space and expands over the rest of the hills he will leave more of these breadcrumbs to mark his trail. 

20191229075451_IMG_6884

 

IMG_20191229_102044

 

At 10:35 a.m., the train begins to slow to a crawl, its destination is around the corner. I am expecting Shimla station to repeat the blue and white. It does not entirely. I guess, sitting at the top of the pile, it needed to be set apart from its lowly subjects. But, the woodwork is artistic and the stone floor is gleaming. My breath does not catch like it did at the sight of Shoghi, Jutoh and others but it is easy on the eyes. I smile at the attendant and skip out of the bogey like I would have 20-25 years ago. The five hours had flown by. Netflix had been turned off after the first hour and I had turned not more than ten pages of my book. Mostly I had been engrossed in the images unfolding outside the window. In times, when it is usually about how fast can we get there, it had been a nice change of pace to take my time.

 

 

Note:
Photos & Doodle Courtesy – Himali Kothari.