Many maps show a tempting road heading west up a side valley opposite Naggar and directly over into the Kangra valley. If it exists it clearly isn’t bus-suitable – and in India, that means its a very bad road indeed. Instead, to head west from the upper Kullu valley, you have to do a sizeable diversion south first, backtracking to Kullu and Mandi. That was the start of my route today, to stitch together local buses and hopefully connect with the narrow-gauge railway through the Kangra valley.
My awakening at Naggar Castle this morning was less gentle than yesterday’s, not only as it was earlier, but also as it was via a mild earth tremor, common enough in this zone of active tectonics, that jolted the building and knocked out the electricity for the umpteenth time during my stay. Roused from his slumbers, the receptionist worked out the bill for the three different taxes I was required to pay and I set off down to the new centre of Naggar – Naggar Chowk – four hairpins below. The mountains looked stunning , and sturdy enough. There being no-one apparently waiting for a bus down the left bank to Kullu at the stop outside the Aryan General Store, I let a taxi driver persuade me to take the £1 ride back to Patlikuhl, on the valley main road.
No sooner had I stepped out of the taxi, than a brightly painted Kullu-bound bus pulled up, a red prayer flag flying from the front like a Soviet limousine. The conductor did mention that there might be a direct bus to Mandi a few minutes behind, but I decided that an Indian bus in the hand is worth several in a conductor’s fevered imagination, and hopped aboard. The semi-deluxe this was not. This was the local bus down the valley, 30 rupees to Kullu, populated by shepherds and farmers in the Himachal costume of round felt caps and woollen waistcoats, and old women, ten gold rings in every ear, doing the universal thing that old women do on buses of greeting other old women they vaguely know with gales of laughter.
Within moments of arriving at Kullu’s bus station, a similar bus had drawn up, its conductor yelling “Mandi, Mandi!”. No time to partake of the tempting sweet stalls. The interior of this vehicle was the authentic Indian bus experience – loud Hindi music, plastic fruit draped above the dashboard, a flashing Vishnu positioned just where it could be guaranteed to catch the driver’s eye and distract him. While never horribly crowded, I nevertheless ended up very intimate with my bag as a changing cast of characters, including smartly-attired school children travelling huge distances to private schools, came and went. Just before the tunnel, for no obvious reason but to my and my bag’s delight, we were all transferred to a larger bus and pushed on, back through the gorges, to pull into Mandi’s colonnaded bus station (which makes it sound much grander than it is). Once again, my timetable-less connection was almost immediate, on a bus whose interior looked strikingly familar, until I realised it was the bus I’d just got off, shunted around the bus station and now heading for Dharamsala.
Pleasantly uncrowded, we swept dramatically out of the Beas valley on a fine, smooth road, climbing higher and higher through terraces of golden corn and squeezing through the narrow streets of villages of wooden houses. Once again, snow capped mountains, a more westerly part of the Himalaya chain, towered above the forested peaks we were crossing ourselves. Passengers melted in and out of the forests and hills, appearing with no houses in sight for miles. Finally crossing the ridge,the Kangra valley spread out below us, a patchwork of rolling hills, pastures, villages and woods at the foot of the Dhauladhar mountains. Down we raced to congested Joginder Nagar, whose busy bazaar-like streets couldn’t really cope with the constant traffic of lorries, buses and pedestrians. At Joginder Nagar’s grotty bus station, the conductor called ten minutes’ stop, although worthwhile comestibles seemed few and far between. This was the railhead of the Kangra valley railway, but at 12.50, I’d already missed the last train of the day by half-an-hour. I needed to push on to Baijnath and its more frequent service.
For another half hour the bus twisted through the fertile pastures and dense forests of the valley. In some of the villages, dark red-robed Buddhist monks clustered around the shops, part of the Tibetan diaspora based around the Dalai Lama’s seat-in-exile at Dharamsala. Baijnath tuned out to be a pleasant market town sitting around its Shiva temples. A workers cafe served me one of the best dishes I’d eaten in India – a spiced pumpkin and split pea concoction, for a princely 20 rupees. The cafe fell silent to watch the election news, several diners finding Modi’s joke about Congress being led by the ‘RSVP team’ (Rahul, Sonia, Vadra and Priyanka – and when Indian’s were asked to RSVP, they’d say ‘no thanks’) hilariously funny.
I wandered down the steep hill from the town centre to the fast-flowing white-water river below and then beside the narrow rail tracks to the pagoda-like station. Here, the cow was in the waiting room.
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For some reason the 12.20 from Joginder Nagar waits at Baijnath Paprola for three hours (though its passengers can transfer to an earlier train there) and that would be my conveyance to Pathankot, its rake of diminutive General class coaches drawn up at the platform while its locomotive busy shunted other coaches around the yard. An unexpected bonus of all the shunting was the addition of a first class carriage to the otherwise crowded train. I nabbed myself a dinky little compartment in it, threw open the windows and made myself at home for the meander down the valley. Just before four, the acting stationmaster emerged from her office, mounted the plinth on the platform, pulled a signal lever and handed the token to the driver. Bang on time, or thereabouts, we pulled away, the cow mournfully gazing at the departing train from the waiting room door.
The train trundled along, at speeds best described as ‘extremely leisurely indeed’, through carpets of bright blue and orange wildflowers, the high mountains to our right merging into the afternoon cloudbank.
While extremely beautiful, the Kangra valley line felt workaday compared to the other narrow gauge mountain lines, populated almost solely by people going to and from work or school, visiting family or connecting to the broad gauge main line at Pathankot. Slower than the bus it may be, but the train was significantly cheaper. At times, as we wandered through bright fields and past well-ordered half-timbered farm houses, this could have been a forgotten branchline in Mittel-Deutschland, until a thicket of bamboo or a temple reminded otherwise.
By the second stop, Panchruki, the train was so busy that class distinctions were forgotten and my ‘To Seat 6’ compartment was seating ten, many commuting two stops down the line to Palampur, where the train sat. And sat. And sat a bit more, waiting for the uphill train. And once that had gone, for no good reason it sat a bit more. The cycle continued, clickety clacking through beautiful, sylvan countryside in the evening light, the snow peaks approaching and receding as the line curved along the valley floor, the carriage emptying and refilling, an elderly Sikh gentleman sitting on his huge bag of basmati in the middle of the compartment. Sleeping dogs lay in the warm sunlight, little girls led their kid goats on leashes to feed on borage. In every field at least one woman reaped the corn, rising and bending so that they were often totally obscured by the stems.
At Kangra, the line precariously crossed high bridges over a series of deep gorges, the town’s fort silhouetted against the setting sun. Thirty minutes later, the sun now below the horizon, the train halted at Jawalamukhi Road for idli, marinated lentils and chai, delivered to the carriage window by a toothless old man with a tray. Even at the tiniest of halts, groups of travellers would be huddled on the platforms, seeking a space in the packed carriages as the train drew in, illuminated only by the light of the tiny ticket window in the well-built hut that housed the station master. As the train slowed, other passengers would jump off, dispersing along narrow white field paths towards a distant village or the welcoming, warm lights of the ever-present open-fronted general store.
Darkness near complete, there was only the powerful beam of the locomotive’s headlamp, the sparks from its wheels on the constant curves and the dim light from the General coaches to illuminate the deep countryside between hamlets and villages. Beyond Guler, however, there was just enough light in the sky to reflect the enormous reservoir that fills much of the valley floor, the railway having been diverted when its original route was flooded, now running high above the northern shore.
The train trundled on, under a full sky of stars, sometimes so slowly that moths would have time to react to the passing bright light of the first class carriage and fly towards it, hitting my face as I leaned out of the open window. A halt outside a station waiting for a signal to clear showed up a bushy area iridescent with glow worms.
After numerous stops, each quieter than the one before until eventually we were stopping unwontedly, Pathankot Junction hove slowly into view, the train rolling into a forgotten corner of this scruffy north Punjab junction where even platforms for the narrow gauge train were considered an unnecessary luxury. Pathankot’s friendly chief TTE, much amused by my making payment using a large collection of 5 and 2 rupee coins, rented me a retiring room for a very short rest. Frankly, the room looked better with the light off, but it was just about preferable to a station bench for a few hours. And I always thought working taps were an affectation anyway.