November 20, 2010 by Jools Stone
Today’s guest post comes from my good friend Jim Mcintosh, the travelling cobbler and conservationist behind Holes in my Soles. It tells of a lesser known peril of riding the Himalayan rails…and of ignoring your wife.
On the train from Kalka to Shimla nestled at 2,067 metres in the Himalayan foothills of India’s Himachal Pradesh state, one can easily daydream into that time of the Raj in India, when the colonial administration and its baggage would transfer annually to its summer capital of Shimla to escape Delhi’s desiccating heat.
Completed on 9th November 1903, the 96.5 KM, 2′ 6” narrow gauge track snakes over 864 bridges or viaducts, and through 102 tunnels, the longest being 1143 metres. As you ascend from Kalka, you’ll find yourself viewing the same point several times, but each time passing by a little higher up, on a tortuous route that winds in hairpin bends from one side of the valley and back upon itself again and again, until finally cresting and into the next valley.
We had caught the train from Delhi to Kalka ,and there transferred onto the Shimla Toy Train. Passengers crowded aboard, and crammed their luggage into any available space. I had insisted on buying a curry and rice before boarding for Shimla, and placed it very carefully in the overhead luggage nets. In the tiny, cramped, knee touching compartments, more luggage got shoved up there. The young Indian couple next to us were making the most of this enforced intimacy, with a very uncommon for Indians, display of fondling each other. But Shimla does have a magical, romantic mood about it, and I guess some people can’t wait….
I was fascinated not just by the feat of engineering, but the views from the heights out over the valleys where April displayed Nature’s springtime colour palette. One valley painted purple with flowering Jacaranda, the predominant tree. Then into the next valley where yellow and gold glistened through the azalea thickets, and a change again to deep orange when slowly entering the next, as the flowering tree species changed with the altitude.
I was spellbound, in a deep reverie at Nature’s marvelous display outside, almost hypnotised by the clicketty clack, and constant transfer from gloom to brilliance to gloom as we exited one tunnel, over a viaduct, and then into another. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to a very familiar female voice complaining of something dripping on her head, but I was sure she’d sort it out easily ……and we were just entering into a valley of huge candelabra tree Euphorbia, and they just looked so wonderful to me.
As I moved to get a better glimpse of a particularly statuesque specimen, my train of thought was broken abruptly, as a very cold, drippy curry and rice missed me by a centimetre and went flying out my window! Thrown by my very tired, hot and furious wife. Dang! I was just starting to feel peckish.
Ladies do not like curry hair shampoos, and will not let their man forget about it for a long time either. Luckily for me, we would spend 4 days at magical, romantic Shimla, making it up….
Shimla station is a short walk to the city. Negotiate with the baggage wallahs who will crowd around to carry your bags. They are a good investment, as the walk uphill in the thin air at 2067 metres altitude is tiring. They also know the best hotels or backpacker places to stay to suit your budget.
You will have many options, and we found it was a simple matter of stopping and inspecting rooms at the many hotels we passed until we found good, clean rooms, rather small but with exceptional views looking out over the city and the mountains. Our room was mirrored around the walls and ceilings, truly suitable for magical, romantic Shimla, a city that we found was a honeymoon destination for Dehli’s newlyweds, and amorous train couples.
An added bonus was the troop of Languar monkeys that slept every night outside our windows, which explained the bars and netting, necessary to stop them ransacking our room. Must have been some holes, as a couple of happy Languar were spotted cavorting across rooftops…. with our travelling companion’s brassiere.
Shimla itself is built upon several ridgelines, and quaint, pastel painted, crammed together housing literally tumbles down the hillsides. Narrow, winding streets and alleys, lined with shops and street markets make it highly interesting to explore. A very good place to buy woollen knitwear, and other winter clothing.
Places of Interest
The Mall: Shimla’s city centre where you’ll find a good range of restaurants, and Post Office. At the Tourist Office ask about the area’s local treks and walks. Also day and longer tours around the region.
Christ Church: Located at far end of The Mall. The stained glass windows are very worthwhile viewing.
Temple of Hanuman: or Monkey Temple. 2 kms walk from The Mall, to the highest hill at 8,000 feet. Be wary around the monkeys. They are known to bite so don’t have any food visible to tempt them.
While Shimla’s places of interest can be cruised through in a day, its main attractions are the train ride getting there, it’s atmosphere of decayed colonial beauty, or as a point from where to enjoy hiking in the surrounding hills. Shimla is the ideal place for rest and recreation after your hard slog around Northern India.
About Jim Mcintosh
Married, we’ve found an ideal mix of work and travel. Three children, all world travellers. Custom footwear maker, African painted dog and elephant lover, pumpkin planter, and blogger at Holes in my Soles an eclectic mix of travel experiences and musings.