NOTE: We were both so sad to read of the deaths of the two British tourists who died just outside of Kalka. It hit home for us even more as we had travelled the same stretch of line just a couple of days before. Our thoughts are with the families of those who died and were injured. Mark and Sarah – 13 September 2015.
BBC REPORT: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34239177
MARK: “Whose idea was this”! Sarah moaned. It was 3.45am and time to get up. In just an hour and a half we had to be safely aboard the CSR Express leaving Amritsar for the four hour, 200 mile journey to the north Indian city of Chandigarh. We were travelling in the footsteps of the British Raj in the 1920s, 6000ft up in the Himalayas.
It was a day I had been looking forward to for a long time, ever since I’d seen a BBC Documentary about the Famous Indian Toy Trains (narrow gauge) which go to some of India’s highest towns. The train from Kalka to Shimla is the longest trip, arguably the best – and we were going on it.
The journey from Chandigarh proved largely uneventful, except of course the station platform changed at 0505 from 1 to 3 which necessitated a 500m dash with all our bags over two footbridges. Then I realised they had changed the carriage configuration. Our Second Class AC coach should have been in the middle of the 20 carriage train. It wasn’t, it was at the end and also at the far end of the damn platform… We made it, just, and the train pulled out right on time at 5.15am.
In our coach, there were some fit looking (Sarah’s words not mine) guys who had two enormous trophies proudly taking up a whole table. One was for the Northern India Basketball winners and one for the Northern India Volleyball winners. They must have won their tournament. The rest of the journey was largely uneventful and so as the train crawled into Chandigarh, we were ready for the madness of another Indian station. With back packs front and back on, we struggled off the train and made our way to the station entrance. Porters really miffed that two Brits had done them out of business. We did a quick deal with a taxi man to take us on the next stage of the trip from Chandigarh to Kalka some 25 miles away, in order that we could join the Toy Train known as the Himalayan Queen which was due to leave at 1210.
Two hours early, we arrived. Chai and coffee killed some time and I went off chatting to the locals. Fifteen selfies later, I went back to Sarah sitting on a hard wooden bench reading her Kindle.
The Toy Train arrived right on time. Described as a “Toy”, this is perhaps not quite the impression to give. There were seven coaches pulled by a smelly old diesel train, running on a narrow gauge track. It had over 250 people aboard. I quickly identified our Coach – Coach 1 – and was relieved to see our two names on the seating reservation list complete with our ages and translation in to Hindi – see below photo.
We clambered on and sat down on a blue small plastic bench – seats 22 and 23. And then suddenly all hell broke loose. A hundred school boys aged between 10 and 15 piled on to our train.
They were swinging on the overhead parcel shelves, and fighting as to who was going to sit where. Sarah’s face a picture, my mind going back a couple of weeks ago to a recent BBC Programme with Dan Snow at Mumbai station. Suddenly a police man wielding a stick came in and they all ran out of the carriage to get in their own – thank God we could breathe again. They were replaced by two Swiss backpackers, three middle aged French couples “doing India” and twenty local Indians. Some families, some couples and a few single travellers.
Sarah’s face another picture when she realised we were going to be stuck in this 1930s carriage with our back packs blocking the gangway for a mere five hours 22 minutes. We set off. 90km to go (around 60 miles) and 10 stations. Even my O Level maths could work out that was an average speed of a little over 12 miles per hour! But in fairness we were going to be climbing over 2000m.
As the train went round the first 48 degree corner, we narrowly missed two cows, a cheeky monkey (animal, not child) and a few locals pushing their bikes down the middle of the track, because that’s what they do here. But we were off and what a start. The clickerty clack sound of the track like a metronome in consistency. The 35 degree stifling heat in the carriage where only small windows gave any sort of relief through the occasional welcome breeze.
An hour in, the train was literally “zig zagging” up the contours of the mountains, doubling back on itself in order to make the steep gradient. I had counted 17 tunnels – just another 86 to go.
Suddenly disaster struck. A flood of smelly effluent rushed out of the “hover toilet” and lapped all around our bags. Not quite a sea of sewage, but whatever it was, it was to quote my sister in law Lisa, “not pleas’”. Urgent steps were called for. I rushed forward, tripped over the French contingents bags and managed to move up our backpacks together with the Swiss man’s bag, prior to another wave of yuk coming our way as the train went round a sharp left bend. Bags moved, Sergio, the Swiss young man (from Zurich, Janet Elliott) was very grateful (sehr gut) and promptly lashed his bag to ours with our metal chain for security. The British Bloke had won another friend.
Three hours in and the little train came to a stop at a hillside station – 1450m above sea level. Cue mega clear out of the whole train who rushed out for plates of curry, water, potato cakes and anything else they could buy in 6 minutes 30 seconds before the train horn blew and everyone rushed back on. As the train rounded a right bend at the end of the station, Indians were running up the track and launching themselves into the carriage. All aboard!
The scenery was stunning, the sun shone, the temperature dropped with each 100ft we climbed. The only thing missing was a few beers like the Watercress Ale Train. But we had Nan bread, two packets of crisps and some Bourbon biscuits which we shared with our fellow passengers. They reciprocated and the food feast began – not impressed with the French cheese though…
Finally we could see the hanging town of Shimla, across the valley. Hundreds, ney thousands of multi-coloured red, green and blue buildings clinging to the side of the mountain. We had made it. The British had returned home to their Colonial Summer Retreat. Shimla a little piece of England, 5000 miles from home – the nearest we will get for eight months.