Reliving the Raj days

Reliving the Raj days

All hill stations have attractions that the locals steer clear of. They are left exclusively for the starry-eyed tourists to revel in. In Nainital its boating, in Darjeeling its Kanchenjunga gazing, and in Shimla it’s the Shimla-Kalka toy train ride.

No Shimla resident goes on the toy train. That’s a journey for the monkey-capped Bengalis and foreign tourists to make. If the locals have to get to Kalka, they would rather drive down or would prefer to hop on to any available public transport. The toy train ride is just too much of a touristy thing to do.

It’s also a more leisurely thing to do. A journey, which normally takes two-and-a-half hours at medium pace, takes more than five hours in the train. But one would expect the slow train journey to be the natural choice of travel for the temperamentally relaxed, laidback and slow-moving Shimlaites.

But apparently, the train is a bit too slow even for them. The train is designed not to exceed the maximum speed of 25 km per hour. Some of the curves are too sharp on the hills for the train to meander safely at higher speeds.

A slow ride

The train therefore chugs along sluggishly, giving enough time for the DSLR-wielding tourists to capture the scenery without having to worry about motion blur. The speed is also slow enough for anyone to hop off and on the train if they wanted. On an earlier journey several years ago, I remember the driver getting down from the moving train to chase cows off the railway tracks and to the raucous cheering of the Bengali tourists, hopped back on.

This time, when I boarded the train, I found myself in a compartment full of foreigners. The other compartments — except for an odd honeymooning couple and the ubiquitous Bengalis — were full of them too.

This is just as well. Foreign travellers in India have an uncanny ability to ferret out places of cultural significance, much before Indians begin to take note of them. But the Shimla-Kalka train journey hit the international tourist consciousness in a big way in 2008 after UNESCO recognised Shimla-Kalka Railway as a world heritage site. Anticipating an inspection by the UN body, the Himachal Pradesh government had declared it as a heritage site two years before in 2006. Now the toy train journey has made it to the must-do list of all the Indian guide books there are.

The narrow gauge Shimla-Kalka railway track was laid down at the start of the 20th century to first ferry up the heat-harried British residents who had found in Shimla’s cool climes a perfect respite from Delhi’s sweltering summer. Laying down this railway track, which stretches to 96 km on the hills, was an onerous task, but surprisingly it took less than half a decade to finish. Work began on the track in 1898 and in 1903 it was ready for use.

Nostalgia

And in the slow trundle of the journey past pines, conifers and rhododendrons, the Raj nostalgia is never too far. It is there in the multi-tiered stone bridges — a marvel of British engineering — and it is there in the dark damp tunnels — the darker and longest of them having legends that have remained fresh to this day. Among them the story of Colonel Barog, an engineer involved in laying the track, is the most popular. In designing one tunnel, Barog made a miscalculation that cost him his life. He ordered digging at both ends, but failed to align the bores. For this blunder, he was fined rupee one by the British government. He felt so humiliated by the public reprimand that he committed suicide. The locals here say you can hear the shrieks of the engineer in the tunnel at night. The tunnel — the longest at 1,143 metres — was named after the engineer.

A total of 103 tunnels were bored into the hills. Today, however, there are only 102 tunnels after tunnel no 46 was dismantled in 2006. The railway line goes over 864 bridges, which are both an architectural and engineering delight. The railway line climbs from a modest 656 metres at Kalka to an altitude of 2,076 metres in Shimla.

Because of their popularity with the tourists, burgeoning now with the world heritage status, there are at least five trains each day running in either direction. However, bookings have to be much in advance if you want a confirmed seat. The train cabins are modest and you can sit anywhere. The best place is, however, at the doorway. Tourists like to sit here feet dangling, cheering, clicking, laughing, as if they are not making a journey, but are in an automobile in an amusement park. Little wonder then that locals give the toy train a wide berth.

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