Compared with the ugly, sprawling mess of New Delhi station, Old Delhi Junction is a surprisingly cosy station, despite the impressive fortress-style façade, built by the Raj to imitate the nearby Red Fort. I turned up at 8pm, expecting simply to check how many hours delayed my train was: the Kalka Mail, which runs 1700km from Kolkata to the western Himalayan foothills must be India’s least reliable train. By Delhi, it is on to the last 250km of its cross-country journey and is, on average, according to the invaluable indiarailinfo.com 4 hours 12 minutes late by this point.
I was somewhat amazed, therefore, to see the train on the electronic departure boards next to the faux turrets, that it was expected bang on time. I only had time to spot that the station had the first McDonalds I’d seen in India – it sold thalis – and the 24-coach mail train was pulling in.
The hill station of Shimla, served by the mountain railway from Kalka, was long the summer capital of the Raj, as the viceroy and his functionaries sought to escape the heat of the plains, so the direct link from erstwhile Calcutta dates from that time, pre-1931, when it was the Raj’s capital. Indeed, the Kalka Mail in some form first ran in 1866, when the onward connection to Shimla would still have been via the cart road. At the right time of year, it remains a popular route to Shimla, but today the train’s main purpose is as one of the many Kolkata-Delhi trains. The final, overnight leg to Kalka (and perhaps more importantly, Chandigarh, 30 minutes before Kalka, which manages to be the state capital of both Punjab and Haryana while being in neither), feels a bit of an add-on. Leaving Delhi, I had an entire bay of four beds in AC 2-tier to myself. Thanks again, SD Enterprises Ltd of Wembley. I velcroed the curtains shut and readied myself for the horribly early morning arrival in Kalka. Possibly my last bit of fresh Indian Railways linen this trip (fresh out of its paper bag, despite how far into the journey the train was) and still I can’t work out which sheet is supposed to go on top.
Determined not to lose its hard-won reputation as India’s least reliable train, the Kalka Mail put in a commendable effort and lost three-quarters of an hour for no apparent reason overnight. It pulled up at the end of the broad gauge tracks at Kalka at 5.15am, to a tremendous squawking of parakeets nesting in the station rafters. At the adjacent narrow gauge platforms, two long trains of diminutive coaches stood waiting for their connecting passengers and mail for the run up to Shimla, but I joined the very small crowd waiting on platform 6.
Within moments, an odd-looking contraption was backing in – effectively a Model T bus on rails. This was the railmotor, one of four such ageing beasts living on the line since the 1920s, which would have been the viceroy’s private ‘train’ to his summer residence. The nose of the railmotor, which housed the engine, sat on its own bogie, meaning that it bounced along separately from the main body, a slightly unnerving sight as you sat behind the driver’s glass cubicle looking forward. The fourteen passengers who had managed to secure reservations squeezed aboard and the turbaned driver started the engine with an alarming choking sound – at this stage you wouldn’t have convinced me the railmotor was capable of hobbling across the Utter Pradesh plains, let alone climb 1500m into the Himlayan foothills.
We were an express, stopping just once on the run to Shimla, so left first of the three trains waiting to head uphill, bouncing into the dawn, with the mountains rising out of the morning mist ahead. At first we twisted through the outskirts of Kalka and a number of other villages, diving through narrow gaps between buildings, village dogs barking at us and giving easy chase.
As we rattled through the first station at Taksal, the ritual of the token exchange took place, which would become familiar after the sixteen such exchanges before Shimla. The single track token was a little metallic ball, housed in a leather pouch, itself placed on a large metal ring, which hung on a peg in the driver’s compartment. As we passed the platform, the driver threw the whole caboodle from his window, aiming it to land at the feet of the signalman, who would be holding up the next token ring for the driver to grab. Having taken possession of it, the driver would then fish his reading glasses from his top pocket, put them on, examine the minute engraving on the ball itself to ensure he had actually been given the token for the next section uphill, replace his glasses in his pocket and hang the token loop on its hook. All this while waving to the stationmaster who was holding his green flag to attention, and also checking that the semaphore signal was clear – all without slackening from our considerable speed of, ooh, 30km/h.
Leaving the larger villages behind the climb began seriously, the line curving sharply to hairpin through the deciduous woods allowing it to gain height quickly. At one point, looking downhill, the already-traversed line could be seen at three different levels below us, views now opening up of the plains to the south. Parakeets flew off from our rattly roar in great flocks, monkeys bounded through the trees and fan-tailed grouse often had to be hooted at before they would shift from the tracks.
At Koti, the stationmaster’s house, seemingly the only thing the station itself served, was cantilevered out of the steep hillside. Beyond the platforms, we plunged into the second longest tunnel on the line, which wasn’t very long. The Shimla line is certainly an engineering marvel, but not in the way many railways are – with long tunnels and lofty viaducts. There are over a hundred tunnels, but few of them are more than a hundred meters long, and many bridges – many of a double-arched Pont du Gard variety, but they are all short. The marvel is more the routefinding through the hills and ridges of the mountainous foothills, the way the line avoids needing major civil engineering works of art, along with how it gains height just about manageably, without the need for a Nilgiri-style rack system.
Beyond Koti’s tunnel, we had switched suddenly from deciduous to scots pine forests, the railway wandering through the sun-dappled glades like a country footpath (of which there were many genuine tempting examples crossing the line). Occasionally, we would break from the woods into pocket handkerchief-sized areas of bright green terraces and a handful of villages, their brightly coloured houses dropping down the precipitous hillsides.
At Barog, just under halfway up the hill (‘All Trains Stop Here For Meals. You Can Take Eatables From Here’), the driver tightened the screw brake and we came to a halt at this beautiful blue-and-white painted hillside station, announcing to his drivers that he was off a cup of chai. We all followed suit, every one of us no doubt coveting the idyllic-looking station retiring rooms. Barog is at the end of the line’s longest tunnel and takes its name from the British Army engineer whose first attempt at building it led to two ends of tunnel that didn’t meet. In shame, he shot himself and is said to haunt the abandoned tunnel. Otherwise, its a jolly spot.
Chai break over, the railmotor continued upwards, leaving Barog’s vendors to prepare for the rush from passengers on the two much larger trains on our tail. We were now at well over 1000m, gigantic views over range after range of blue wooded hills stretching into the distance, as we coursed along the ridges, cacti now punctuating the journey. We passed through the large, brightly painted ridge-top town of Solan, where an antique-looking distillery and brewery, once served by its own little station, stood right next to the line. Throughout the journey, no matter how remote a place seemed, we passed locals using the line as a shortcut, particularly the short tunnels under ridges and spurs of the mountainside, which cut great distances off the twisting roads.
By Kanoh, we seemed to at last be playing with the peaks of these foothills, rolling along the bare summits of the ridges, often with the land dropping precipitously by over a thousand meters on either side. From here to Shimla was probably the most spectacular part of a spectacular journey. On we chugged, through the wonderful Raj-hybrid named station of Kathleeghat. Just before Shoghi was an oh-so-fleeting glimpse of the towering snow peaks to our north, a reminder of how limited our train’s mountaineering efforts really were in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, the air through the open windows was cool and fresh, the anathema of Delhi’s. At Shogi, the semaphore signal at the platform end stood at ‘danger’, and a few moments later a stopping passenger train heading downhill pulled in, full of locals and demonstrating that this is by no means merely a tourist line. Chits were signed by the driver, the signalman handed over the token, climbed the steps to his box, pulled levers causing the semaphore arm to drop, and we were off on the final leg, trundling precariously along near-two thousand meter high hillsides.
Through Summerhill, the closest station to the viceregal residence (the station now bearing a large Notice declaring ‘The Allah of Islam is the same as the God of Christians and the Iswar of Hindus’), one final tunnel, and we crawled into Shilma’s long, curved platform, cantilevered from the hillside, watched by red-coated porters and shaggy monkeys.
Shimla is a fascinating, yet rather weird city. On two counts, it exhibits something of a personality disorder.
Firstly, the combination of an English county town planted on a ridge in the Himalayan foothills, with a very Indian bazaar of corrugated iron roofs, twisting stairways, street food and spice stalls perched on the precipitous slopes below. Secondly, its attempt to combine a town that positively swirls with holiday crowds with being the state capital of Himachal Pradesh and a sizeable university town.
Despite the contradictions, it is very hard not to like the place, a couple of unpleasantly busy narrow roads at station level aside. The air is cool and clear, the views over range-upon-range of green mountains to the far distant snow-capped Himalaya – which crop up at every corner – breathtaking, the (mainly) predestrianised ridge-top centre a pleasant change from Delhi’s clogged roads. You walk up to The Ridge past the glass-and-steel gothic former Railway Headquarters; a gabled and rotunda-ed row of shops that could – content notwithstanding – be on any British high street (The Mall, baned to Indians in the days of the Raj, has another whole street of these shops).
Then to Gossip Point – the centre of the town’s evening passeggiata with the state’s tourist board housed in some slightly run-down south London-style semi-detacheds, with the mock-Tudor post office to one side; on past the slate-roofed, slightly Welsh looking town hall, to reach the eponymous square at the end of The Ridge, where crowds gather to catch the evening sun in front of the Tudor-esque library and Victorian gothic Christ Church with its very English interior (the requirement to remove shoes at the door aside) and another fine collection of memorial plaques to those who died on the voyage home (‘Medical Officer to three successful viceroys’) or by accidental discharges of a rifle. Beside, in the grey-stone church hall, a very Indian wedding reception was just getting underway with the arrival of the groom and the band. I had lunch in the Indian Coffee House – in fact one of a long-standing nationwide chain of excellent, co-operative-supporting cafes, but in this case feeling like it needed to be so-named so you were not misled by its Weybridge-esque exterior.
A two mile walk out of town along the villa-lined wooded ridge led me to the viceregal lodge, from where the subcontinent was governed from March to October each year, by a viceroy waited on by a staff of 300, including eight to chase away the monkeys from the extensive hill-top gardens. The lodge, now a higher education institute-cum-thinktank, is an astoundingly hulking pile of Scottish baronial exuberance plonked on its own section of the ridge, grey stone turrets, towers, colonades and porches softened in places by the wandering wisteria. An impossible-to-miss lion and unicorn stood over the main entrance, should anyone doubt the building’s purpose.
The reception hall can only have been designed to intimidate. A narrow space, but towering three stories high, covered in Burmese teak, as fresh as the day it was carved despite being unpolished since construction. The narrow confines and high wooden walls make the visitor feel confined. Then, glancing up you find that the top two stories are galleried, but from your position on the ground, you can see no depth to the galleries themselves – you could be watched from above in this narrow space without knowing. It may not have had the desired effect on Gandhi, Nehru et al, but the 1945 Shimla conference, held here, famously failed to resolve independence for a united Indian state. These were not premises that any Indian in the 1940s entered on their own terms, though the photograph collection on show does have Nehru sharing an apparently hilarious joke with Lady Mountbatten.
Pride of place on the guided tour was the table where the ‘Britishers’ (Mountbatten, specifically) first presented Nehru with the plan for partition. Appropriately, it is quite a small table, about right for the back of a fag packet.
As the afternoon wore on, huge cumulonimbus clouds bubbled up over the distant mountains and, as the sun dropped, so dramatically did the temperature. So early in The Season, only a few bashful honeymoon couples paraded along The Ridge as the last glints of sunlight disappeared from the bazaar rooftops. I roamed the precipitous bazaar staircases, putting together an excellent dinner of street food, rounded off in a remarkable sweet parlour. I liked Shimla. It had somehow adopted the difficulties of the past and made them part of its own, seemingly untroubled, identity.