• It was a lazy, yet one hell of a ‘rocking’ train journey, the only one, I must confess, I have had through the mountains. With three school-time friends (all of us in our late 50s) for company, when the journey finally ended in the cool climes of Shimla, little over four hours later, it almost felt like we had lived a dream!

Yes, you guessed it right! We wanted to enjoy a British era experience, and we soaked in the fun and joy, every moment of it, to our heart’s fill.

Photos By : Life In Chandigarh

The excitement began a day before we embarked on the journey early July, and none of us would have slept that night. Getting up from bed in our respective homes in Chandigarh at an unearthly hour, getting ready, collecting at a common place, and reaching the Kalka railway station by car, to be in time to catch the train leaving at 0525 hrs, sent our adrenalin rushing.

Anyway, we were well within time as we got off our car in front of the impressive heritage building. On entering, we found the platforms equally well maintained and neat and clean. It was still slightly dark when we made our way to the designated platform. And, lo and behold, we were confronted with what looked like a small old time school bus with a biiiiiggggg snout!

Indeed, it was the vintage train (Rail Motor Spl.) which was to take us on a long winding journey, navigating us through the twists and turns of the hills – just one small coach, seating just over a dozen passengers, with its own diesel engine, as in a bus. The headlamp of the train was still on in the twilight hour as we were ushered in through one of the two doors – front and back, one each on either side.

It was still cool when we boarded the train, and realised only sometime after embarking on the journey that the coach had no fans at all, let alone air conditioning. There wasn’t any toilet either. But our minds were soon put to rest by the co-driver (there were two of them exclusively for the dozen of us passengers, both driving half the way), assuring that the train could be halted at any of the 20-odd stations on the way, if the need arises.

The train, which took us through some of the most picturesque surroundings and railway stations and dozens of tunnels all the way to Shimla, started at a gingerly pace, the driver (manning an iron wheel with a prop, not used for steering, we were told later) repeatedly sounding the horn to ward off odd stray dogs and cows and pedestrians (apparently on way to work) from the tracks. After the initial what looked like couple of kms, the single-coach train picked up some pace (by its own speed standards that is) but the horn was mandatory at every blind bend, and there were a countless number of them.

We were quite literally on vibration mode as the ‘kharrh-kharrh’ train lapped up the metres of the narrow gauge tracks, lulling two of the more tired of us friends to sleep. The train kept intermittently slowing down and then picking up some speed, and again either slowing down or halting at quaint little railway stations, which approached every few minutes.

There was a customary exchange of what looked like iron wire loops between the train driver and signalman at most of these stations, followed by entries on a register at an odd station.

Despite it being the peak of summer in the first week of July, the weather remained pleasant throughout the 90 km journey, there not being a single location where the train was not enveloped in the surrounding thick foliage and tall trees. This was in complete contrast to the eyesore barren and denuded hill surfaces and traffic snarls one encounters on a road trip to the ‘Queen of Hills’.

Spectacular views of lush green hills, slopes and valleys, the meandering roads, the enchanting hues of the rising sun and the occasional cluster of houses and passing townships, were tonic for the eyes and the soul. Trying to capture each and every of the amazing locales in frames on a mobile camera was an equally satisfying indulgence and kept me occupied,  while my friends stole a wink in between.

Cheerful faces of staff at each of the small to tiny railway stations, as they exchanged quick pleasantries with the drivers, were also memories worth cherishing.

From a height of 656 metres (2152 ft) at Kalka the train cut through the foothills of the Shivalik ranges, before approaching the higher hills. Passing through Dharampur, Solan, Kandaghat, Taradevi, Barog. Salogra, Totu (Jutogh) and Summerhill stations, the train finally culminated its journey at Shimla (2,075 metres or 6,808 ft) railway station.

Apart from Kalka and Shimla railway stations, the only big station on the way was Barog, which was also the most scenic. There, we were welcomed at the station by cheering tourists, who made it a point to take a good hard look at the train from outside and inside. Besides being picturesque, the station, which emerges after the longest (1,143 metres long) of the 100-odd tunnels on the route, boasts of guest rooms, a cafeteria and tiny mobile eateries, and not to forget nice and clean toilets.

On arrival at Shimla, and after a quick freshen-up at the cute and comfortable Hotel Alpine Heritage Residency, far far from the madding crowds on the intersection of Cart Road and Shimla bypass from Khalili side, we were on our way to explore the calm and serene surroundings.

We were lucky enough to be able to take a sneak peek at the majestic and imposing building of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (earlier called the Vice Regal Lodge) and its expansive lush green gardens, otherwise closed because of the pandemic.

After a few more scenic locales, we settled down to a sumptuous lunch in the restaurant at the state-run Hotel Holiday Home. A well earned rest, followed by a quick recce of a crowded Mall Road, and we were able to squeeze out a table booking at the packed The Oberoi Cecil, where a hearty ‘gup-shup’ and a light Mediterranean dinner rounded off our day.

A more than comfortable night stay at the hotel and a ‘parantha’ breakfast refreshed us for the return journey. Rail Motor Spl welcomed us back as we jumped in. Departing from Shimla at 1140 hrs, we reached Kalka by 1630 hrs with a sharp shower on the way keeping the weather cool right down to the foothills.        

For the academically oriented

The Kalka-Shimla Railway, one of the three British era train routes in India to be declared mountain railways of India World Heritage Site (the others being Darjeeling Mountain and Nilgiri Mountain Railway), has 20 stations, 103 tunnels, 912 curves, 969 bridges and 3% slope (1:33 gradient) on the route.

 

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