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  • Day15

    The Toy Train

    March 8 in India ⋅ ☀️ 7 °C

    Our prayers have been answered! The day dawned bright and clear, with scarcely a cloud in sight.
    Once luggage and breakfast had been dealt with, everyone rushed outside with their cameras to capture the views that had proved so elusive yesterday. Here at last were the snow covered peaks of the Lower Himalaya that we had come to see. The views were indeed worth the journey required to get here. We departed Shimla in style from the World Heritage Shimla Station, on the world famous Toy Train. This was the brain child of the then Viceroy, Lord Curzon who felt it would be an immense logistical bonus to link his Summer Capital with the plains of Delhi and so the construction of the narrow gauge Khalkha-Shimla Railway began in January 1891. The plans had been laid as far back as 1847, but had stalled until Lord Curzon’s intervention. As you can imagine this was a hugely difficult line to build, due to its length (95.5 kms) altitude and terrain. The climate of course did not help. The line passes through 102 tunnels, 988 bridges,, including a spectacular gallery bridge No 541 near Kanoh and 917 curves, some as steep as 48 degrees. This is a masterpiece of Victorian engineering - yet another! They did, of course, have plentiful labour available, but also the vision and drive to complete the task. It was opened for passengers on November 9th 1903 by Lord Curzon himself.
    Shimla Station sits at 6811 ft above sea level and is a beautiful, small, still largely Victorian building. The Indian Railway is as far as I can see a well run, staffed and efficient organisation, much as our own railway would have been originally. Generations of families still continue to work for Indian Railways and their dedication makes the difference. The Diesel engine and the couplings were being carefully checked over as we arrived on the platform to board. Originally, the train would have been pulled by a steam locomotive and occasionally still is, but only for more important types than us (Michael Portillo and his film crew for example!). However, we pulled out of the station on time, watched by the monkeys sitting on the iron railings. They had been very entertaining.
    So began what has to be the most stunning rail journey of my life. The scenery has to be seen to be believed, with towering mountains, deep valleys, and verdant forests of pine and rhododendron, just coming into bloom. We were plunged into tunnels and emerged into bright sunlight and the ever spectacular landscape all around us. The train stops at little stations with intriguing names such as Summerhill and TaraDevi. Along the platform comes the ‘tea boy’ with paper cups tucked in his top pocket and his pre made large kettle of tea. You can buy a cup through the window for 10 rupees (about 8p). As you descend to the plains the countryside becomes noticeably drier, the pines and rhododendrons disappear to be replaced by warmer climate loving varieties and the odd cactus. What was a surprise was the constant high level of population in a landscape I would have expected to be largely devoid of people. Farming is the main occupation and here it is hay making time. I could see farmers high on the steepest of slopes wielding a scythe. The mountainsides looked almost patchwork in effect as they were clearly cut one way and then another according to the terrain. As we neared Kandaghat our destination, we passed over the Kanoh bridge and then the train curves away to the left enabling you to crane your neck out of a window and see the incredible viaduct you have just passed over. It is almost Roman in its construction and elegance, being constructed entirely in stone.
    Finally, we reluctantly disembarked at Kandaghat to meet up with our drivers once more. We walked down a long ramp to the road below to await the convoy of 10 white Toyotas, who had made the journey from Shimla by road as we were on the train. They appeared round the bend, only to be stopped in their tracks by a large cow, who settled in the middle of the road and until she decided to move nothing could be done. According to Hari, if you are unfortunate enough to hit one, it is an instant jail sentence. To quote him “ This is India and everything is possible!”.
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