The train is crowded with Indian holidaymakers, travelling to enjoy the cool air of Simla, the mountain retreat in the Himalayan foot hills of India’s Himchal Pradesh province.
This is the Himalayan Queen, one of India’s five famous ‘toy trains’ (I’ve only done two so far) and one of the many unique experiences to be had while travelling by train in India.
Over the 60 miles the impressive multi-arched viaducts and the three per cent track gradient highlight what a feat of engineering this rail line was in 1913 when it was built.
We chug at a sedate 18 miles per hour from Kalka to Simla and in every tunnel the passengers shout, hoot, scream, whistle and do goat impersonations in the brief darkness. Below is the shot I took by just holding up my camera and pressing the shutter in the dark – yes those guys are dancing at the back. The children on the train are delighted with their excursion and hang out the windows; huge grins on their faces.
At a lower station two young water buffalo and an opportunistic goat graze beside the platform, while the purple flowers of the feathery Jacaranda trees colour the landscape. Stone walls are covered with flowering creepers but in many places you can see the jungle is trying to reassert its control.
Steam locomotives have given way to diesel on this remnant of the British Raj’s legacy but the signalling and train control equipment are still proudly antique. The key token signal system on the Simla railway is wonderful to watch – with the circular tokens held out by hand to the driver at each of the quaint signal boxes.
This system was developed for use on single track lines where the trains travel in both directions. The idea is that the driver must be in physical possession of the token in order to be able to travel on the single track line.
Soon the scent of pine trees fills the air and then Simla hoves into view – a picturesque tumble of buildings on the mountainside surrounded by forests of deodar, oak and rhododendron. At a cool 2,076 metres (6,811 feet) Simla was a popular British base from the 1830s onwards and become the summer capital in 1864.
The ex-Viceregal lodge could have stepped straight out of a Walter Scott novel and its flower beds sparkle in the sunshine after a typical Simla rainshower. Now the gothic structure is known as Rashtrapati Niwas and is used by the Indian Ministry of Education as well as being a tourist attraction.
Strolling along the Mall, Punjabi matrons pull their cardigans closer over their saris. I am sure they are indulging in Simla’s age-old pastime: gossip. Christ Church is golden in the late evening sun. It’s the second oldest church in North India, built in 1857 for the British community here.
As the sun drops I plunge into the dim rabbit warren of a bazaar, which clings vertiginously to the hillside, in search of Rudyard Kipling’s unforgettable boy traveller: Kim. I love it when places I travel have literary references and love him or hate him, Kipling portrayed some very vivid scenes of Indian cultures and places in his stories.
Piles of cereals lie for sale in huge sacks and through a doorway I can see an ancient printing press and piles of newsprint. The fragrance of masala chai is wafted on the mountain breeze, drawing me into a tiny shop where men are watching cricket on a small TV and a pot of chai bubbles endlessly on the hob.
It’s really dark now and people gather around braziers in the streets. The contrast with the Victorian colonial part of Simla up on the Ridge is palpable. And just like in Kim, the people are still friendly and curious in the muddle of rusting iron and mouldering wood that is the Simla Bazaar.
By Natasha von Geldern
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