The toy train to Shimla

19:27 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

If there was ever an article that needed a theme tune, it was this one. I have duly obliged (see the video).

Often the joy of being on vacation is not in being somewhere nice, but in the travelling to get there. Travelling on the toy train to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh through the Himalayan foothills is one of these times.

We boarded the toy train at the station in Kalka, Haryana. The climate here was still warm and humid. There was a bit of excitement in the air as people waited for the toy train to arrive. Even in India there are trainspotters. When the diesel engine arrived a gaggle of trainspotters gathered to watch the engine connect to the carriages. The carriages are very basic – wooden benches and a wooden rack for storage. We all piled in and our journey began.

The toy train has a narrower gauge than standard railways which allows the carriages to negotiate the ascents and curves of the path up through the foothills. A side effect is that the train travels very slowly. If this was anywhere else you would be quickly bored but in Himachal Pradesh, the scenery is beautiful.

We slowly climbed through forests, across valleys and passed villages which cling to the mountainside. Ahead of us were the Himalayan mountains ans in our wake were the Gangetic plains. The heat and humidity evaporated and was replaced by a cool freshness.

This being India, one of the best things to do was to hang outside of the train. The toy trains travel at such a leisurely pace that I could reach out and grab dew-laden leaves from the trees. Everyone has a go of hanging outside the train and I wonder if the locals get bored of seeing trains going past with everyone hangout out of the doors.

Despite being in the mountains, there were still people walking along the tracks – mainly school kids on their way home. Initially, I just observed but soon plucked up the courage to smile and wave. They beamed back and before you knew it, every time a kid walked past the train I’d give them a high-five from the train.

The railway was built by the British Raj so they could access their summer capital in Shimla. The Victorian engineering in some places is stunning. There are lots of multi-arched viaducts with as many as five layers or arches.

Picture from here
The British liked Shimla because it reminded them of Scotland – cool, green and rainy. And it’s for the same reasons that Shimla is one of the main Honeymoon destinations for Indians. I ended up speaking to a Honeymooning couple for a while on the journey. We chatted about our home towns, exchanged sweets and crisps and I pretended I knew something about cricket.

After five hours gentle trundling we arrived in Shimla. This little town was never going to compete with the scenery we had just enjoyed, but Shimla does have it’s own charms. Shimla is built on the side of a mountain with streets that are generally steep and winding.

The ridge in the town centre is a public square, with mock Tudor buildings and a Catholic Church. It could easily be mistaken for an English market town – except for the dramatic mountains surrounding us and the pani puri stalls.

Pani puri is a classic Indian snack. It’s basically puffs of bread filled with chilli-flavoured water. You buy six and each one in a single mouthful. I started on a fairly mild ‘tourist’ spiciness and worked my way up to authentic ‘Indian’ spiciness. The final pani puri was so hot that as soon as it touched my tongue I wanted to spit it out. You have to eat them in one mouthful and I was struggling to swallow this molten mouthful of spicy water. I may have even been bent double with my hand over my mouth. I had seared my mouth with the strongest green chilli flavour imaginable but at least I’d entertained Arif and the locals. They just couldn’t stop laughing.

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