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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photos & Doodle Courtesy – Himali Kothari.