Travelling Hopefully

4th May 2018

Olivia Greenway lets the train take the strain…

My top travel tip is to go to the places that the locals go. And Shimla, although one of India’s smallest cities, is is a popular holiday and honeymoon destination for many people. Getting to this old hill station – situated north east of Delhi, at over 7,400 feet above sea level – is something of a mission. Road travel is possible, but most journeys by road in India are tedious and the train is more interesting. Especially this one: the famous ‘Toy Train’ narrow gauge railway, celebrating its tenth anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2018.

Shimla is the perfect escape from India’s exciting but frenetic capital. Not only do you leave the noise and busy-ness behind, but also the unrelenting heat. In the days before air-conditioning, the colonial British found the Delhi summer temperatures (frequently hitting over 40 degrees Celsius) too much to bear, so took to moving to Shimla for the hottest months of the year. It officially became the summer capital in 1864. Road travel was challenging then, too, so Victorian engineers – at the top of their game – built the magnificent railway line that opened twenty years later. The track travels over 800 bridges and through 100 tunnels and makes for an exciting, and unusual, trip.

We join the train at Kalka, transferring from Delhi. Accompanying us on this section of our escorted trip around India by rail is Raaja Bhasin, author, historian and expert on Shimla, his birthplace. He tells us that he used to travel on the train every summer when he was a child and that the journey was an adventure in itself. “We’d pack a hamper with lots of homemade goodies and have a huge on-board picnic.” In our carriage today, there is space for about 25 people, sitting on wooden benches. Some well-prepared passengers have brought cushions. Despite the fact that all the windows are open, it is unbearably warm and we all give a sigh of relief when, with a short toot from the engine, we are off – slowly and jerkily, I have to report, but we are moving at last.

After a while, the heat becomes more bearable as a breeze filters through the windows. Outside there are still scenes of city life: poor shanty houses, with laundry hanging on walls and balconies, and skinny dogs and goats picking their way through the litter. Eventually, this view gives way to green fields and crops and we make our first of ten stops on the five-hour journey. Nearly everyone gets out to stretch their legs and queue at the station stall, where a brisk trade is being had in tiny paper cups of ‘chai’ – a milky, spiced tea. Without much warning, after about ten minutes the engine toots again and the train begins to move. Several people from our carriage have to run to jump back on board; I guess they must be used to the vagaries of Indian railways, but the possibility of missing your train for a cup of tea does seem a big risk.

We build up more speed and then start to climb through steep wooded hills, leaving behind the fields of maize and rice. As the train snakes along, the sharp turns to left and right give us glimpses of the carriages ahead. Raaja points out a particularly impressive brick bridge that looks like a Roman aqueduct. Soon after, we make another stop, at Barog, a pretty station with well-maintained blue and white painted wooden buildings. It’s a surprise to discover that this pleasant looking station has an unfortunate history. The eponymous engineer responsible for building the nearby tunnel decided to save time by starting at both ends of the hillside. Unfortunately, the two tunnels failed to meet, and he was disgraced and fined one rupee. He never got over the shame, and took his own life. The station bears his name in his memory.

We continue climbing – with wonderful views – through dense rhododendron forests that must be astonishing in flower. Colour is provided now by bright orange and pink lantana flowers. I notice oak, birch and the native deodar cedar, framed against the far-reaching mountain views. At our penultimate stop a street trader jumps on-board selling delicious smelling chaat (a savoury puffed rice snack) that he deftly mixes to order with chopped raw onion, coriander and spices.

We pull into Shimla station just before dusk. Porters carry our suitcases aloft to the awaiting cars for our hotel transfer. Immediately I notice how quiet it is compared to Delhi: no honking horns, just an ordered bustle. It’s also pleasantly warm, and as we enter our historic hotel I get a whiff of fresh jasmine. The Cecil was the first hotel of the famous Oberoi luxury Indian hotel chain, opening in 1864 and having the young Rudyard Kipling as one of its first guests.

With a population of only 250,000, swelled during the summer by visitors, Shimla is a compact small city: clean and well kept, with a character of its own. Buildings – many still standing today – were heavily influenced by the British colonial period, possibly a bit too grandiose for our modern British tastes, but they obviously suited the Victorians who lived here.

The city is set across seven hills, and its roads are too challenging for India’s favourite form of transport, the auto-rickshaw, so residents and holidaymakers rely on cars or, even better, on their own two legs. One whole street, The Mall, is a traffic-free zone. It’s right in the centre of the town and runs for at least a mile. Rather like the Kings Road in Sixties London, one ‘promenades’ along here, doing nothing in particular except maybe stopping to admire the sweeping view across the valley in the gaps between buildings or indulging in some window shopping in the numerous retail and food establishments that line the road. Along the way, one finds the popular meeting place of Scandal Point, so called after a maharajah eloped with a British woman in the 19th century. Also here is the Gaiety Theatre, complete with rich red velvet upholstery and curtains, designed by Henry Irvine.

Unlike many of our churches, most Indian temples are in regular use. A case in point is the Kali Bari temple, a ten-minute walk uphill, which has been a place of prayer since the 1850s. Watch out for the monkeys, who may steal your sunglasses for fun. For a few rupees you can hire a stick to keep them away, but that seems mean to me. I’m told by our concierge that the trick is to never look a monkey in the eye. I hide my sunglasses, just in case.

Worth visiting is the Viceregal Lodge, a short taxi ride out of town, overlooking yet another valley and set in superb grounds. Built in 1888, it looks more like a Scottish Gothic castle than lodge. Fabulous parties were held here at the height of British rule and anyone who was anyone came to be entertained. Our thoughts turn to food and we enjoy a traditional north Indian buffet feast at the oldest hotel in town, Clarkes, built into the mountainside.

The mood in Shimla is quiet and slow – a throwback to times past. People come here to relax, and it’s very hard not to. In the evening, with a talk beginning ‘around 7pm’ Raaja will tell us more about his beloved Shimla. And as I wait, sipping my salted lime soda in the cool of the hotel terrace, I realise I don’t really need convincing – I’m a little bit in love with the place already.

Olivia Greenway travelled to Shimla as part of a longer journey through India, organised by Great Rail Journeys. ‘India’s Golden Triangle’ is a 5* rail holiday with excursions to Delhi, Agra and Shimla, including a journey on the Toy Train.

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