With only 25 minutes to go before the Toy Train leaves we’re still well south of Kalka when our Shatabi Express grinds to a halt. We just are 4kms from Chandigarh and after we’ve been stopped for a while I ask the cabin attendants whether the Toy Train will wait. They assure me that it will. Another 10 minutes passes, then I notice people are leaving, climbing down onto the tracks with their luggage. Tuktuk drivers appear like cockroaches and scoop them up. I enquire further and am told that our engine is defective and we are waiting for a replacement. “It will take time”, an Indian gentleman tells me, rolling his eyes. It does take time. There is divided opinion as to whether the Toy Train will indeed wait so long. “No, no. It has definitely gone.” One gentleman offers. “No, no”, says another. “It is a connecting service. It will definitely wait.” We pull into Kalka just two hours and twenty minutes past the departure time of the Toy Train, but there it is, waiting patiently for us and, perhaps fortunately for us, a group of 40 on an escorted Great Rail Journey, who we didn’t realise were on our train. The two foot six-inch gauge line that the Toy Train runs on opened for traffic in 1903 and connects Kalka with Shimla. The Toy Train is one of those must do train rides in India and so we set off, in our tiny little carriages that seat only a very tight 30 passengers at a sedate 20mph. People were clearly much smaller in 1903 and either travelled with much less luggage, or more likely, had their servants bring the luggage on the next train. Before we get to Shimla we will have passed over 864 bridges and through 107 tunnels in just 96kms. We enjoy the journey immensely. At 20mph we can appreciate the amazing scenery as we start to climb into the foothills of the Himalayas, and Sanjay, our new local guide who we picked up at the Kalka station, gives us the heads-up whenever a photo opportunity looms. The longest tunnel is just over 1,000 metres and the engineer building it had a little trouble with the alignment. That is to say that the two crews, starting at either end, did not meet in the middle. Great shame and disappointment and the engineer was sacked and fined a symbolic 1 Rupee for wasting public funds. That night he went to the tunnel mouth and shot himself. His replacement also struggled with the alignment and the project stalled. Then Balkhu, a local sadhu working on the line, offered his local knowledge and spiritual insight into how the tunnel might be aligned – and it joined perfectly! Our journey will take six or so hours with about ten stops along the way. We realise that the frequent stops are to allow down trains to pass as there is only the single track. But at every stop we are met by people selling delicious pastries and cutlets, (all veg of course), together with chai for Maggie. At one stop, Maggie comes back from the bathrooms frothing at the mouth. There is one western cubicle in the ladies and two Indian squatters. Maggie has just used the latter and emerges to find all the English women from the big tour queued outside the one western toilet. “It’s too dirty”. “It’s just a hole in the ground”, they complain of the squatters. Maggie says that with the brief stops they were never all going to get use the one western toilet so pulling herself up to her full height, she told them in no uncertain terms that the Indian toilets, which had been opened especially, were spotless and she reminded them that they’re in India now and they need to get real. As we’re running 2½ hours late our new Sanjay offers a program variation. It will now be 8.30pm before we arrive in Shimla on the Toy Train and darkness will fall around 6pm. So for the last 2 ½ hours of the trip will be in the dark, with no scenery, in a cold, cramped box on wheels. At 6pm we leave the train, while the 40 British tourists watch enviously. We leave with Sanjay’s car and driver who has driven down to meet us, by 7pm we have checked into our hotel and by the time the Toy Train chugs into Shimla at 8.30pm we have nearly finished an excellent pair of curries in town.
Our first morning in Shimla, Sanjay takes us to the museum; fantastic in Maggie view, underwhelming in mine, but indeed there was a lot of very old stuff. Then we go to the Viceroy’s Lodge, built between 1880 and 1888 to house the British Viceroy of India. It’s an impressive pile and I had to borrow a couple of photos from Wikipedia as I’d left the camera at home. Harry Potter could have been filmed here. Sanjay describes the Lodge as Scottish Baron’s temple and he’s right in a couple of respects. It was built by a Scottish architect and has a dour, foreboding presence, and secondly, it’s a temple to the dreams and aspirations of the British. It took eight years to build and although 840 people lived in and around it, only 40 were British. It’s a building that projects the belief in Empire and the assumption that the sun would never set. But just 60 years after The Lodge was complete the Brits had been kicked out of India. The new Indian President used the building as his summer retreat just twice before he realised it was totally unpractical and he turned it into the Indian Institute of Advanced Study.
Shimla is built in the saddle of a very steep hill and the houses are perched precipitously on the slopes. Shimla is so steep it makes Santorini look like a billiard table. The town map resembles a game of snakes and ladders and is almost unusable. Shimla is not the place to visit if your knees and hips are starting to fail you. Our hotel is about a 30-minute steep walk up to Mall Road, where the restaurants and shops are located. On our second evening we are meandering through the Upper Bazaar, gazing into some very simple little hole-in-the-wall “pure vegetarian” restaurants in when an American man sticks his head out the door and tells us the food is excellent. It looks pretty dowdy, even by our low standards, but we enter and sit next to the American couple. Over a simple, yet excellent meal, we swap stories. Steve is 74, his partner Chris is 68. In 2002 they sold their house in Seattle and have pretty much been on the road ever since. They arrived in Shimla in November and have no plans of moving on. Their philosophy is to live simply and really get under the skin of the country they’re in. During the Arab Spring they were living in Syria in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs and had a contrary opinion of Assad to the one promulgated in the western media. They had such informed views on world events, particularly from countries in which they lived, that we arranged to have dinner with them again the next night, and then exchanged details hoping for a catch-up somewhere next year.
Next morning there are flurries of snow outside our breakfast window and the other (non-international) tourists who have come up from “the plains” are having a frolic. In two days we have gone from sunny Rajasthan with temperatures in the high 30s, where shorts and tee shirts were the order of the day, to Shimla where the Lands End down coats and Uniqlo Heattech layers are getting a good workout. We wrap up against the cold and climb the 1,000ft to the huge stature of Lord Hanaman on Jakhu that dominates Shimla. There is a sign that advises how long it might take to climb for your age group/fitness. We pat our collective backs as, even with the aforementioned creaky knees we have achieved a time that puts us into the “fit” category for the under 30s. It’s cold and windy at the peak and while Maggie visits Jakhu temple, which she later describes as one of the most spiritually powerful places she’s ever been, I keep an eye on the hundreds of monkeys who cavort around and above the temple. I’m clutching a stout stick, (a monkey stick in fact), which I have rented for 10Rp at the entrance to the temple. On the climb up there a were a couple of near monkey misses and we have been warned to take off our glasses as the monkeys will steal anything and any return it only in exchange for food. I eye the monkeys who are eyeing me back and I indicate my stick.
Back in the Mall Ground we meet two of the English tourists from the big group. It’s only day five for them and the cracks in big group travel are starting to show. We offer a few tips for Rajasthan, (including not expecting the Taj to be illuminated at night), which is their next stop. They’re definitely at the top end of the market. On the Toy Train they were all clutching big packed lunches from the Taj Hotel in Chittigarh, and complaining because there were chicken sandwiches. “I’m not eating chicken. Why have they given us chicken? Groan, Moan, Complain.” These two seem quite pleasant and we suggest they might like to join us for a samosa, as that’s where we’re heading next. “Oh no”, they say, “We’re just scurrying back to the hotel for lunch. We only eat in the hotel otherwise we might get sick”. Then Mike reveals that he got a nice little touch of Delhi Belly from the Taj Hotel in Delhi. Later I Google their trip and find they have paid only £1,895 each for their 13 days, including airfares, at least two, if not three meals a day, and accommodation in the Taj or Oberoi. We’re impressed. Us little FITs have paid many times that amount, but at least we don’t have to suffer buffet dinners at the Taj each night with people we don’t care for.
We eat a last magnificent breakfast at our Shimla hotel. Apart from the slightly inconvenient location, (on the last day we discover they offer a shuttle), it’s a great hotel. A decal on our bedroom window advises not to leave windows open as the monkeys will occupy our room, and not to be alarmed by any loud thumpings. Our room attendant Brij is sensational – we will mention him on Tripadvisor. When we return on our first day Brij has taken the “Please tidy my room” sign to heart. He has closed our suitcases and neatly aligned them side-by-side. He has collected the numerous chargers we are compelled to travel with; computer, phone, eReader and camera, and coiled them neatly and placed them in a precise row. Likewise, our toiletries have been carefully aligned and our toilet bags zipped up. Our room is so tidy it’s alarming. Bur rather than being somewhat disturbing this is strangely quaint and he has also left two swans made from white towels and rose petals. (Next day this morphs to a lotus flower). At reception as we check out we talk to an Indian couple in their early 40s who are visiting from LA. We’ve said “Hi” to them a couple of times before but never talked. They will be in Australia later in the year and we invite them to visit. They return the offer and he gives us his card. He’s a Hollywood documentary producer. “You see”, he says as they get into their car, “You have Hollywood family now”. As Maggie pays the bill she becomes a little misty-eyed as she tells the young receptionist what a great time she has had. The receptionist becomes alarmed. “Madam”, she says, her voice rising shrilly, “Your eyes. Is everything OK?” “It was just the bill”, I offer drily.
Instead of the placid, peaceful ride up to Shimla on the Toy Train we are being driven to Amabala Junction station about five hours away. The road is narrow and windy and in places is barely one and a half lanes wide. Our driver is careful and courteous, but his fellow road-users are not. Honking and passing on blind corners are de riguer, and we have several “moments” before we are finally off the mountain. At one point a small car with Hare Krishna blazoned on the back window cuts of off on one corner. Toward the end of the descent when we are confronted with a 4WD that has pulled out to pass a truck and we have nowhere to go. Our driver brakes sharply and pulls left toward the edge of the road. He brakes so quickly in fact he doesn’t have a chance to get his foot on the clutch and stalls the car. We are mere centimetres from a drop of hundreds of metres to the valley floor below. In the instant before the 4WD blasts past us I am less worried about a head-on, which we might survive, and a push off the road that we certainly will not. How you can have a State capital that is only accessible by this narrow two-lane goat track is beyond me. Our guide tells us before the train was built it took three weeks by bullock cart.
Six hours after leaving Shimla we are farewelling Sangay after he has seated us on the Amritsar Shatabi Express. He and the driver have another five hour drive home. He has given up eleven hours just to ensure we are in the correct seats in the correct car. Although it’s a task we feel we could complete ourselves, and suggest that to him when we first meet, he is insistent that even though it takes a drive of eleven hours for less than three minutes’ work, it is all part of the service. And we are grateful.