It is a victory of languor over haste, of style over speed, of innocent fun over soulless convenience. It is just a testament to the idea that the journey is as important as the destination, to the notion that newer does not always mean better. It is the Kalka-Shimla toy train, it has just turned 100 and it is going strong as ever. According to the Railway Authorities, more people use the line today than in its heyday during the Raj. And it still doesn’t go faster than 25 km per hour.
A bus will get you from Kalka to Shimla, just in three and half hours and in the train, it takes less than two hours. In holiday season, the trains are jam-packed and bookings become an essential part of the entire scenario. Even in chilly November, it remains full.
It is as if Shimla has extended a long tendril of late Victorian twines to the plains. Some 96 km down the mountains, the Himalayan Queen comes to greet her guests. As soon as you are on board the blue-and-cream-liveried carriage and have passed the first half-timbered stations with their planter boxer full of marigolds, it is as if you have been pushed into some Enid Blyton holiday adventure.
The journey begins at Kalka, a well-swept, quiet, and rather empty station at the end of the broad-gauge line. This is the edge of Punjab, and you can already sense the transition from the clamour of the plains into the stillness of the mountain .The platform is milling with holiday-makers from Kolkata and Solapure, fortified with furry hats and padded gloves in the warm sunshine already going a bit nutty with excitement. On my coach, a lady from Delhi wears silver anklets over thick socks. Beside me, a row of locals sits swathed in homespun and puff on bidis.
The train begins its corkscrew ascent almost immediately, rising above the factory-infested suburbs of Parwanoo into the forested hill .On one side showers of bamboo alternate to stout, age blackened stone embankments, while on the other, the valley drops further and further below. The first tunnel, not much bigger than a footbridge, is greeter by ecstatic wolf whistles.
Above and below, tunnels and bridges and track heave in and out of view as we skirt the mountain .The route is so convoluted that it is often difficult to tell which parts lie ahead and which behind. Tunnels frequent and the catcalls and whistles grow more determined. There are 102 tunnels on the line, round–mouthed, stone-lined constructions with white washed borders. 887 bridges, multi-tiered, multi-arched, stout pillared structures, trucked into the corner of the mountain or leaping chasms which claw their way up from the valley.
Kalka-Shimla is not the longest narrow-gauge Railway in India, but the toy trains are not supposed to be big. Nor is it the oldest, but it did turn 100 on November 9, and that is old enough. Yet, it is connected to Shimla, the one-time summer capital of the subcontinent and probably the most intact piece of Raj memorabilia.
The line flattens out a little after an hour, curving easily in and out of the hills. On the other side of the valley, the mountains are bleaching in the sun, becoming a ghostly line on the horizon. The Delhi ties are handing out sohan papri .We slow down to pass tiny stations, little rows of huts with stupendous views, where the workers jump up from their games of cards to grin and wave at us .Do they really do this four times a day, seven in high season ?
What is intriguing about the Kalka-Shimla line is that it has 18 stations, most of which seem to serve no purpose. There are places like Kathleeghat, whose room seems only to serve accommodation for staff. Take Barog, about half way along. It is the most famous station on the line, built where the line turns out of a tunnel, its immaculately maintained buildings curve away from the bend to follow the trajectory of a tiny siding, so that nothing seems out of place. Some how, somebody has managed to make a Railway look elegant. There are retiring rooms, and holiday homes of Railway staff, and garden benches, and a spacious dining room where the passenger on the more up market trains are served lunch. But why does it exist? No one seems to know.
It is tucked into a lonely cleft in the mountains where Oak and Pine trees cling to the slopes. Its most famous feature appears to be its tunnel, the longest on the line 1143.61 m in case you are wondering. The place itself was named after an engineer who apparently committed suicide when the two ends of the tunnel old British Church swing into view. The boys from Delhi have now passed out, sprawled across the seats, exhausted from wolf-whistling their way through too many tunnels. The landscape is brown and dry and empty, the hills crinkled, speckled with farmhouse and patched with pine forest.
Finally Shimla pulls into the view, draped across a long saddle, off in the hazy distance. Its mock-Tudor hotels unimposing ‘imitation–chateau office building become clearer as we trundle in and out of the forest ,passing place like Tara Devi and Summer Hill. The air is chilly and I am beginning to envy the Bengalis for their fur hats. Then, after a few minutes, we are alighting in Anglo-India. You soon see that much of Shimla’s Raj architecture is down-at-heel and sagging with age. And yet, the finest living example of Shimla’s heritage is the one you have just stepped off.
[Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/india-nepal-iran/210124939/]