Scaling the Himalaya’s gets no easier than this!
Climbing at a constant pace through swathes of tropical foliage to over 7,000 feet above sea level from the oppressive heat of the Indian plains in just under five hours was a breeze for me. With really quite minimum effort on my part this first experience of the Himalayas was turning out to be a bit of a doddle! And the secret to my apparent mountaineering marvel was in fact…a toy!
Known as the ‘Toy Train’ this narrow gauge transport wonder that opened in the Edwardian period in 1903. And if it this were a real toy it would be a world record holder for sure as its runs for 95 kilometres. Starting at Kalka itself 3 hours north of a sweltering New Delhi the slow and steady climb to Shimla crossing valleys as it twists and turns hugging the ever-growing mountains on its way north to the city that was once the summer capital of the country when under the rule of the British.
Keeping count of the tunnels, bridges and viaducts is hard as the track has hardly any significant lengths of straight rails on the whole route to the summit in Shimla. The views as you plod up get just better and better. Sweeping views down into the valleys or across to the hills, that you will soon be climbing up and over in 30 minutes or an hour or so’s time.
Towing 6 small carriages the diesel engine gently pulls its load of passengers with the horn sounding at every bend, crossing or tunnel as the temperatures nicely drop on the climb skyward. Stops are made on the journey where a top up of ‘Chai’ is welcome or as it’s called these days time for a ‘comfort break’ at a land based toilet rather than the ones that are sighted in each compartment. Though be warned you do not have much time as its relentless ascending has to continue to its final destination.
As well as carrying tourists whom flock to ride on this legacy from the British colonial period this is a service with a job to do for those that live and work along the snaking route. Traders leap on and off at stations selling fresh foods and snacks to the locals as well as the visitors if they feel like trying their colourful food wares.
Once settled into the gentle motion of the four-hour journey you certainly have to wonder just how the hell this railway was conceived and built? The route between Kalka and Shimla is no picnic for railway construction. One engineer even committed suicide after the tunnel he planned failed to meet in the middle! Around 102 tunnels, 864 viaducts or bridges plus nearly a 1,000 curves the desire to build must have been such an all consuming project and top priority for the then rulers. Now listed the Kalka-Shimla Railway is included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing and rightly so.
As the summer residence for the British rulers and also it’s Army headquarters whom seemed to have stopped at nothing in order to make it easier for the government staff and soldiers have an easier passage to their Indian mountain retreat. This haven of coolness that very much reflected the cosy climate of British summers that they had left far behind for their Raj commitments. Today the carriages are cosy with basic but comfortable enough seating with opening windows so chances of snapping the views are plentiful but leaning right out with the frequency of tunnels and random over-hanging branches it is certainly well worth avoiding.
Make no mistake this is certainly one of the world’s very best rail journeys and an experience not to be missed. Tiny it maybe but a bigger or better train ride experience I think you will be hard put to find. Here you can really sense the smells and sounds of the mountains, its plants and villages with the odd waft of diesel fumes from the engine or another passing train.
The city of Shimla itself is of course full of metal colonial clad architecture along with a baronial limestone mansion that was the seat of power for the Viceroy and later Indian leaders after independence in 1947. Situated of course in one of the very best hilltop locations! Quite busy and noisy during the day the narrow winding streets are awash with jostling honking traffic, who’s drivers somehow negotiate the slimmest of hilltop roads missing each other by millimetres rather than inches its seems.
With it’s heritage hotels still left from the days of the Raj the opulence of that period is still to be glimpsed today at the 5-star Omeroi Cecil that stands on its hilltop seat thus offering also great views over the mountains, valleys and Himalayan sunsets. Although extended in recent years it still reflects the style of that former time with its cavernous central bar and lounge area with numerous internal floor balconies stacked up to the clear giant skylight atrium roof above. Service and food is first class, it also offers a gym and swimming pool if you haven’t used enough energy sightseeing in this city set on seven hills. Excursions to the Viceroy’s house, to a monkey temple or just enjoying shopping in the city and taking in the friendly relaxed feel of the place.
This is just one highlight of a 13 day tour offered by Great Rail Journeys called ‘India's Golden Triangle’ the whole programme takes in two stops in New Delhi, The Taj Mahal in Agra also the wonderful pink city of Jaipur.
With hotel accommodation that any Viceroy would approve on the way it provides both an amazing rail experience and a perfect way for a first time visitor to India to gain an insight into one of the most delightful and vibrant countries in the world.
I for one would and will buy a return ticket!
Great Rail Journeys India’s Golden Triangle is a 5* rail holiday taking in the kaleidoscopic sights of this colourful country. With excursions to Delhi, Shimla and Agra with its white marble icon the Taj Mahal, and journeys on the Shatabdi Express and Toy Train, this 13-day tour includes stays in 5-star hotels. From £1,995pp, departing Oct 2017 – Dec 2018.
GRJ Independent can tailor make holidays to the region for those wishing to travel to India on an individual basis
Tel:01904 527 181 .
INDIA'S GOLDEN TRIANGLE
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Travel writer and photographer, Geoff has travelled the world in one way or another for 30 years. He is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and we welcome his contribution to Your Holiday TV