I awoke to the sound of banging on the door of my sleeping compartment. The train was stopped and there was a platform outside. I opened the door to find a surly porter standing there, he said “Kalka. I will take your luggage.” He delivered my luggage to the Shimla train, charging the outrageous price of 150 rupees, and I waited for my train to depart. It was 4:45am, and the narrow gauge passenger yard was a flurry of activity. A small 2’6″ gauge diesel shunted carriages and guards readied their trains for departure.
There were 2 trains that departed ahead of mine; a small 18 seater railcar and the “luxury” Shivalik express. The Shivalik express had upholstered seats and slightly larger windows. It also included refreshments on the train and a meal halfway up the hill. At the time, I wished I had booked on this train, but later, I became glad that I hadn’t. The Shivalik was full of upper class Indians, who had slightly bored expressions on their faces. The doors were closed on departure, and the windows did not open.
My train, the third to depart, had mostly second class chair cars with 2 first class compartment cars. I was in one of the first class cars (the only difference between first and second class was that first class was that they were fully seat reserved and less crowded). The reason for being happy with my choice of train was twofold; I was travelling with a British couple from London and a young Indian couple, we all had a great time in our little compartment as we chugged up the hill. The other was that the doors outside our compartment stayed open for the whole trip, making a great vantage point for photos.
The English couple were newlyweds in their early 40. They had been travelling in India for a week already, and had been telling all of their fellow travellers that they were on their honeymoon. The news had received some odd reactions and uncomfortable glances, and they couldn’t work out why until someone had told them that in Indian culture a honeymoon is a very private thing, not normally discussed with strangers! I believe that the Indian couple (at a guess in their late 20s or early 30s) were honeymooners as well as they were unusually affectionate for an Indian couple. The woman had henna tattoos on her feet and hands.
A group South Korean ladies sat down in the 3 seat compartment adjacent to mine, and I couldn’t help but notice that that compartment was vacant on the reservation list. A few minutes later, the conductor came and evicted them, directing them up to one of the unreserved second class cars. I couldn’t work out why he was so adamant that they move, when the compartment was vacant anyway. The reason became clear when we departed Kalka; the conductor spent most of the journey lying across the bench seat, fast asleep!
We departed Kalka station about 20 minutes late (due to some sort of problem with the brakes) and our little 8 carriage train meandered through the town’s outskirts, before entering the forested foothills of the Himalayas. The train climbed steadily, the tracks constantly twisting and turning, clinging to the side of the mountains, with few straight stretches of track as long as the train. The 96 km long line is 2’6″ (762mm) gauge, has 102 tunnels and 864 bridges. Interestingly, all sleepers on the line are not timber or concrete, but cast iron. The constant curves and grades of up to 1 in 33 (3%) mean that most trains take around 5 hours to complete the journey, with an average speed of around 18 km/h.
As we climbed higher, there were beautiful views; colourful little towns clinging to mountainsides and spectacular views out across valleys. We climbed past 1500m above sea level, and started to see clouds below us, at times fully obscuring the view of the valley floor. We stopped at many picturesque mountain villages (such as Barog, Solan and Taradevi), a long blast on the locomotive horn announcing our arrival. We paused at each location for varying durations, another long blast on the horn indicating that it was time to get back on board. Several of the stations had “retiring rooms”; a long term (up to 24 hours) waiting room with a bed, which are available for hire by rail passengers at nominal rates (usually 200 to 400 rupees).
Each station has it’s own crossing loop and signal box, but most only have one platform. Then trains cross at a station, one train pulls up on the non-platform track, and passengers are required to walk through or around the other train. The safeworking system is a token system, the signalmen at each station exchanging a piece of metal with the Driver. Judging from the sound of the bells coming from the signal boxes, it was electric staff or some similar system.
A layer of cloud had formed below us as we climbed past 1800m above sea level, giving the illusion of forested hills descending into calm white ocean. Still the train twisted and turned upwards, passing through still more villages and tunnels. The English couple dozed as the train rattled sedately on. One thing that surprised me was the amount of people crossing and walking along the line in seemingly remote locations; there would regularly be a long blast on the locomotive’s horn and we would pass a group of pedestrians using a goat track or taking a short cut along the line.
We arrived in Shimla just over an hour late (for no obvious reason), and I was inundated by taxi touts at the station exit. I knew the hotel was not far, so I decided to walk. I started walking away from the station, when a voice behind me said “excuse me sah, were are going?”. I told the old Indian porter that I was going to my hotel. He told me that I was going the wrong way, and that all of the hotels were the other way. He said, “please, I will carry your bags?” I said suspiciously “how much?”, he smiled and with a waggle of his head said, “as you please”. I engaged his services, and balancing one bag on his head, the other in his hand, he lead me up the hill to my hotel. I was glad I had taken up his offer, as the hotel would have been tricky to find on my own.
I paid the porter (probably double the going rate) and was taken to my room. I hadn’t known what to expect for A$34 per night, but was pleasantly surprised. the room was quite large and clean. It had an equally clean bathroom with shower. The best part of the room was the view; from my window, I could see the main part of Shimla, and right out across the valley, as far around as the railway station. There was some low level cloud nestled in the valley, and a few wisps starting to come up around the town. I unpacked, and then went to take a photo of the view, only to find it had disappeared in the clouds!
I went out for a late lunch, walking up along The Mall Road to The Ridge. The tree lined Mall Road was quite peaceful, with only certain vehicles permitted, It had started to drizzle, and by the time I reached the ridge it was steadily raining. I bought an umbrella, before finding a Punjabi restaurant where I had delicious dahl and naan. At first I baulked at the 138 rupee bill, before I converted it and realised that it was only about A$3!
I walked back down the Mall Road to the station, passing miserable vendors covering their wares against the rain, which was now bucketing down. There were several trains arriving and departing in the afternoon and thankfully, the rain had stopped. The sun came out to give a beautiful sunset over the valley, bathing the town in a yellow glow. While I was admiring the view from the station, some movement caught my eye. There, on some wires above the tracks; a couple of little monkeys were making their way from the tree near the signal box to the platform. I heard some scrabbling, and there were dozens of them sitting on the station office a little further up the hill. The monkeys on the wire climbed down the veranda on to the platform and begged for food from waiting passengers.
My photography session was very successful with the photogenic little trains (and monkeys), and after the last train had departed, I walked back up the hill to The Ridge for a delicious dinner at another Punjabi restaurant. When I returned to my hotel, I had my first real shower in 3 days and quickly fell soundly asleep in the first real bed I had slept in for 2 nights.