Life in the slow train
words and photos by Angus McDonald
A bus will get from Kalka to Shimla in two thirds the time taken by the train, whose maximum speed is a stately 25 kilometres per hour. But velocity, of course, is very far from the point. Nobody goes to the Himachali capital to live life in the fast lane. It’s all about sampling a bit of Victoriana and taking in the mountains. The experience begins 96 kilometres away, in the plains, at the terminus of India’s best-preserved narrow gauge railway.
In proper colonial tradition, there is a well-defined hierarchy. The ordinary passenger train stops everywhere and costs next to nothing, the Himalayan Queen has bigger windows and softer seats, and the Shivalik Deluxe Express – billed on a sign as ‘a train tailor made to keep you jubiliant throughout your journey to Shimla’ – features carpets, red and cream livery, and all-round plushness. There’s also a piece of mid-twentieth century eccentricity called the railcar, a single, self-powered carriage which seats 14 people. It’s as if an old-fashioned, long-nosed bus has been mounted on bogies. There are three of these endearing contraptions. Then there’s the Shivalik Queen coupé coach, which can be attached to any train. Each coupé is a self-contained compartment for two, with a seat which converts into a bed, the whole arrangement nicknamed, titteringly, the ‘honeymoon coach’. At the top of the pile sits the charter service, four carriages hauled by a restored, 100-year-old steam engine which makes the one-and-a-half-hour round trip from Shimla to Kanoh on payment of a hefty fee.
The Kalka-Shimla railway is not the oldest or the longest of India’s narrow gauge railways, but it is surely the most elaborate. Built in the early 1900s for the annual transfer of government from Calcutta to the summer capital at Shimla, its hyperactive engineering and tweedy tweeness epitomise the overconfidence of its era. This is infrastructure dressed up in petticoats and lace, top hat and tails. Eighteen stations dot the route, their dainty flowerbeds bordered with whitewashed stones, their walls bedecked with signs offering wholesome advice, their eaves, pillars and door frames trimmed with blue. It is probably the most authentic piece of nostalgia Shimla has to offer. The railway celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 2003, and was accorded World Heritage status in 2008.
From Kalka the track drives into the hills almost immediately, corkscrewing past the factory-infested suburbs of Parwanoo and upwards into cool forest. The first tunnel, not much bigger than a footbridge, is greeted by ecstatic catcalls and wolfwhistles from the excited crowd. The train throws itself around the mountain, doubling back and forth, twisting and wriggling its way into the Himalayas. The route is so convoluted it can be difficult to tell which parts lie ahead, and which behind. Tunnels become more frequent and longer, the catcalls more determined. There are 102 tunnels on the line – round-mouthed, stone-lined constructions with whitewashed borders – and 887 bridges, some of them multi-tiered, multi-arched structures like Roman viaducts. The engine huffs along a knife-edged ridge, the valley floor so far below that it has fallen from view. The country sparkles with purity, all grassy slopes and sun-speckled glades.
At Barog, tucked into a cleft in the mountainside where oaks and conifers cling to the slopes, the train bursts from a kilometre-long tunnel to stop at a station straight out of a Famous Five book, where snack vendors dispense sandwiches and cutlets to those in the cheap seats. Immaculately-maintained buildings curve along the platform, and nothing seems out of place. There are retiring rooms, and holiday homes for railway staff, and garden benches, and a dining room where upmarket passengers are served lunch. Pink bougainvillea cascades across whitewashed walls, and double attics crown brick-red gabled roofs. After a half-hour stop, the station master blows his whistle, the guard waves his flag, and the train lurches onwards and upwards.
Solan, another 20 minutes on, is packed with purpose and thrumming with life. The bazaar is teeming and there’s a military parade ground and British church. The train pushes on, back into lush greenery and folded valleys. Shimla makes its first appearance, its clusters of tall buildings draped across a long saddle, far off in the hazy distance. The last section is through groves of cedar and rhododendron, the golden rays of the setting sun lancing through the pitted windows, the feathery forest closing in around the track. The Raj relics grow in size, their mock-Tudor detail emerging in faded glory, and finally the train plunges in amongst them, coming to rest at the most whitewashed, the most sign-bedecked, the most blue-trimmed station of them all. It has taken all day to travel 96 kilometres. Shimla awaits.