We left Chandigarh heading northwards, 45 minutes to Kalka. There we switched to the ‘toy train’ that runs up the mountain to the hill station of Shimla. Called the “Queen of the Hills”, Shimla was the where the British ruled india for the majority of the year. (Being at 7,000′ altitude, it was comfortably cool.)
It’s called a ‘toy train’ because it runs on narrow-gauge tracks. This lets it take tighter turns, but also makes the train a little less stable, so the cars are not as tall as normal trains. Each car holds 35 people snugly, uncomfortably so if you’re an American. Unfortunately half of the seats face backwards. I love trains, but riding backwards always makes me a little queasy, probably because I’m constantly swiveling my neck to see where we’re going.
Though the straight-line distance from Kalka to Shimla is only 20km, but the rail line is nearly 100km long. The train takes 5 hours to slowly wind its way up the mountain. Along the way, it passes through 102 tunnels and crosses 864 bridges. The longest tunnel, at Balrog, is 1143 meters long, or about 0.7 miles.
In my ongoing anti-nausea campaign, I spend a lot of the time (as much as possible) hanging out of the door of our car, one leg down on a step, a hand on the grab-bar. The train cars pass within inches of sides of tunnels. I lean back into the car, knowing that I’m probably safe but not wanting to get smeared along 100′ of tunnel wall. At one point the brush alongside the tracks is on fire, and I warm my hands as we roll past. People standing by the tracks catch my eye, smile, and wave. I want to jump off the train so that I can get to know them, but I also know that would hurt, so I don’t.
We finally arrive in Shimla just after dark. I know that our hotel is right next to the Lift, but I make the unfortunate assumption that the Lift is right next to the train station. It’s a painful mistake, and we roll our suitcases about 3km in the dark alongside randomly veering traffic. We also had to walk through the very dense smoke resulting from a house fire just uphill from the road. We’re already wheezing from the climb and the altitude, and the smoke makes things worse.
After settling into the very-decent Hotel Combermere, we wander out onto Mall Road, a long stretch of road that snakes through Shimla and which is closed to autos. Many shops are open and selling tourist items, especially woolen shawls. There are chaat vendors everywhere, and the air smells fantastic. It’s clean, very cold, and delicately flavored with India.
Mall Road runs up to the Upper Bazaar, the big courtyard at the heart of the Shimla. The entire town follows a mountain ridge, and from the Upper Bazaar you can look down into valleys on both sides of town.
* I’ll write more about the lift in my next post.