I woke early in my Shimla hotel room, right around dawn, to the sound of scratching from the balcony outside. I opened the curtain, and found a little monkey staring back at me! There was a family of them who appeared to have spent the night on my hotel balcony. I watched them playing for a while, before walking up the hill to The Mall to find some breakfast.
At that early hour, The Mall was practically deserted and I struggled to find a cafe worth stopping at. Finally, I found one open that I had seen the previous night, and said to the owner “vegetarian breakfast”. He brought over a bowl of curried chickpeas and freshly cooked flat bread (delicious!). I also noticed some bread rolls in the cabinet at the front of the shop, not knowing the availability of food on the way down the mountain, I bought 4 just in case.
I returned to my hotel and checked out, before walking down the hill to catch the Himalayan Queen Express to Kalka. The train was all second class chair car accommodation, and I found my seat before going to take some photos. I encountered a very friendly young Indian musician who had just married a native American Indian and talked about wanting to play western/Indian fusion. He said he wanted to be as big as Michael Jackson and wanted to make it big in Hollywood as a guitar player. He also said that this might be a challenge, as he did not yet know how to play the guitar. He was very intense, and encouraged me to come and sit with him in his carriage. The thought of having him sit next to me for the next 5 hours made me exhausted, so I politely declined.
Whilst taking pictures of the locomotive, I saw the guard talking to the Driver. He was a large man, squeezed into in a very crisply starched, very white uniform with a white peaked cap. He looked very self important, more like he was the guard on the luxury “Palace on wheels” rather than the narrow gauge Himalayan Queen. I watched him stride back towards his guard’s van before I made my way back to my carriage to board.
We departed more or less on time, and I befriended an Indian couple from Bangalore (who both spoke English) who were sitting in my carriage and we chatted as we slowly made our way down the mountain. We passed a few trains here and there, which I busily photographed while we were side by side at the platform. After leaving Salogra, the line back up the hill was visible for several kilometres, and I was able to watch the Shimla bound train chug up the hill. Just before I lost sight of it, I thought I saw it stop in the middle of nowhere on a steep incline, but was sure it had been my imagination.
We arrived at the next station (Solan). I again met my intense musician friend, who again expressed his regret that I was not sitting in his carriage. I said that I did not want to insult my new friends by moving away from them (partially true), which seemed to placate him. The horn sounded, so everyone moved back to their carriages and boarded. Nothing happened for a few minutes, then another horn blew. I could see a locomotive coming into the opposite track, so jumped down again to photograph it. As I snapped away, I noticed that our train no longer had a locomotive… the one on the opposite track had been taken off our train! The Driver was given the signal, and powered off back up the mountain towards Shimla leaving us with no locomotive!
I discussed this with my new Indian friends, who seemed surprised (as no announcement had been made). They asked a nearby soldier, who said something about the engine being faulty. It looked like it was working pretty well to me, and putting 2 and 2 together, I remembered the train I thought I had seen stop in the middle of nowhere. I discussed my theory with my Indian friends, who put this the soldier. He confirmed that our locomotive had gone to the aid of the other train. Our officious guard was now looking quite worried, and was walking along the train applying handbrakes, whilst wiping sweat from his brow (despite the cool mountain air).
An announcement was made in Hindi over the station PA, which my friends translated for me. A relief locomotive was being sent up from Kalka, the expected delay was 45 minutes. I thought this to be a very optimistic estimate, as we were 2.5 hours from Kalka! We waited and waited, after an hour an announcement was made for any passengers with onward connections from Kalka to present themselves to the stationmaster’s office (again only in Hindi). I didn’t bother, as I had over 5 hours between trains at Kalka.
We stood and joked and walked around the platform of the little station. My friends were becoming worried, as they were to travel on to Chandigarh from Kalka. Finally, after about 90 minutes, another locomotive arrived. The new locomotive was attached to our train, and we promptly departed.
After we left Solan, an older Sikh couple (who had been sitting formally and silently) struck up a conversation. They spoke some Hindi and a little English, but were only fluent in Punjabi. Fortunately, my new Indian friends were also fluent in Punjabi, so we were able to hold a decent conversation. We chatted and joked and had an unremarkable journey down the mountain (as unremarkable as you can get travelling down through the foothills of the Himalayas on an UNESCO world heritage listed toy train). Whenl we were about 5km from Kalka (our destination), we ground to an abrupt halt. After we had stopped for about 3 or 4 minutes, the guard (now bathed in sweat, his white uniform stained and crumpled) came marching up the train. A crowd was following him and one of my new friends joined the group. He returned a few minutes later to say that an attachment on the engine’s vacuum brake hose had broken off (basically jamming the brakes on). they were trying to fix it, but were’t sure how long it would be.
Darkness fell, and all of a sudden there were some violent jerks backward and forwards, and then nothing for a while. After another 10 minutes or so, there was a long blast from the locomotive’s horn. Everyone cheered, but the joy was short lived when the locomotive set off on its own, leaving us in the dark on the outskirts of Kalka without a locomotive (again).
Fortunately, Kalka was only 10 minutes away, and about 30 minutes later, another locomotive arrived, attached and took us to our destination. We finally arrived in Kalka, just under 3 hours late.