N & I are certified travel addicts. And we are clearly road trip aficionadas. But, this time, when another long weekend strikes, there is an urge to do something different. So browsing through yet another travel magazine, we chance upon the must-do rides on heritage trains in India. Mostly found in the hilly regions, these narrow gauge trains have been running since the colonial times. The British did have a way with finding idyllic spots & connecting them to the heartland. Can’t blame them there! The closest to NCR, of course, is Shimla or as the British spelt it, Shimla, their summer capital.
Thus starts the search for a suitable train on the Kalka-Shimla route. There are a number of trains but the best in terms of looks is the Shivalik Deluxe Express while the best in terms of performance is the Himalayan Queen. A train with a twist is the Rail Motor Car which looks & sounds more like a jeep than a train. We book ourselves for the onwards on the Shivalik Deluxe Express and the return on the Himalayan Queen. With that, the Kalka-Shimla route is covered. But, now comes the challenge of the Delhi-Kalka stretch. This is an insipid route and all we have to do is to commute. The main train on this route, the Howrah Kalka Mail, is seldom punctual. We do not want to take our car to Kalka as we will have trouble finding a parking spot for it for three days. We grudgingly book the Howrah Kalka Mail for the onwards and the Kalka Shatabdi for the return. And we wait, impatiently, for the weekend to arrive.
A couple of days before our journey, we begin checking if the Howrah Kalka is running on time. To our horror, we realize that it has been running with an average delay of 10-12 hours! We panic & start thinking about Plan B. Then it strikes me, ever the typical middle-income-group girl, that we can take the bus. Himachal Tourism runs a cool fleet of buses from Delhi to the main cities in Himachal Pradesh. For Shimla, there is almost a bus an hour. We scramble to the Himachal Tourism website and heave a sigh of relief when we manage to find a bus at a suitable time on our designated date and book it quickly. The website turns out to be quite efficient even though it looks as government-ish as it can. We can select our seats and pay by credit card. Wow! This, of course, is followed by the process of cancelling both our onward tickets.
& finally, the wait is over. We head to Himachal Bhavan near Mandi House to board our bus. Our seat is at the far end with a rowdy bunch of young boys right behind us. A peaceful sleep seems unlikely. Sigh! But before we board, N wants to have his favorite food-samosa. Right across the road is a snack shop which serves all kinds of greasy & spicy Indian snacks. N is drawn to it like a bee to a flower. Oh, I came to know something interesting recently. Samosa is not an Indian food. It’s a take on a middle-eastern snack called ‘sambusak’. Well! Once N is satiated, we grab our seats and a quick checking of tickets takes place. & we start moving. Yay! Getting out of Delhi is, of course, the biggest challenge, especially it being a weekday. It is compounded with the ‘kanwariyas’ & their entourages. Truly, one can do anything in this country in the name of religion. The ‘kanwar yatra‘ now is more about occupying the streets, playing LOUD music and creating nuisance, than it is about worshipping Lord Shiva.
We stop at the Haryana guest house in Rai for dinner. Just outside the gate, a bike with two riders unfortunately get a little scare by our bus. While we have dinner, our bus driver & conductor try to provide comfort to them. Nothing has happened to either them or to the bike. But I guess they had a minor heart attack when our big bus and their tiny bike were millimeters apart. Chuckle! Dinner is a simple fare for us. We do not want to delay the bus. We observe other families who are carrying their lunches. They spread out the food on sheets in the garden, & this takes me back to school days. The annual picnic, invariably to the botanical garden, was an occasion we all looked forward too, though there was barely anything new that we could see year after year. At that point in time, my biggest embarrassment would be the food that I would take from home. My mother, being a working woman, would hastily put something together. My friends had elaborate dishes which their mothers had painstakingly made. I probably never said anything to Ma but I used to dislike opening my casserole there. Now, when I look back, I feel ashamed of myself. In spite of her busy schedule, Ma made something worthwhile for me to take at probably 5 am. The food may not have been fancy but there was a lot of love that went into it. I now realize what a working woman’s life is like. I now admire the ease with which she agreed to make whatever I would ask her to. I am sorry Ma for the time when I used to complain about you to myself. If I manage to be even 10% of what you are, it will be an achievement.
Sniff! Got a little sentimental there. Coming back, we were on our way and soon nodding off as the bus met the highway. The bus itself was in a great condition and there was not an iota of rash driving on the part of the driver. The seats were comfortable, we were given bottles of water and shown a movie too! Tiger Shroff needs to do something about his face J Do you support reclining seats? Well, I do not. I think they are unnecessary and just an inconvenience to fellow travelers. The gentleman in front of me had reclined his seat all the way back, & after about five hours, my knees were killing me. While he adjusted his seat when I requested, I still think why are reclining seats made? Or is there a way to better it. The people who manufacture them only think of the passenger who is going to use the reclining feature. They do not envisage the trouble that the person behind faces. Hey, you large corporations out there, fix this!
And we’re finally in Shimla! It is early morning, is drizzling and ah, such a beautiful weather! I think when you are not getting stuck in traffic due to rains or when muddy water is not staining your clothes, then monsoons are just beautiful. We are soon at the Shimla British Resort, another one of the offbeat places I have come across and booked. History has it that the Resort was the residence of a British engineer. It got handed down to various people before resting with the current owner, who used to give it out for movie and advertisement shootings. Finally, about five years back, he opened it as a Resort for the public. The Resort is a set of cottages in themes like British, Danish, & Scottish. Each of the rooms is tastefully done with the décor reminding actually of the colonial times. Lot of woodwork, lot of English paintings, lot of artifacts dating back to the Raj. We need some sleep on a proper bed. So we hide ourselves in our Danish Imperial Room and slip into dreamland.
Too much greenery!
It is noon & we are refreshed. Time to hit Shimla. I feel like a tourist. A quick peek into Trip Advisor shows the Vice Regal Lodge as the #1 attraction. Okay, first stop, Vice Regal Lodge or better known as the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. Our Resort arranges a cab for us and the cabbie turns out to be a friendly, simple chap. He tells us more about Shimla. N, as usual, flows easily into a conversation with him. The Vice Regal Lodge turns out to be more charming than I imagined. It is a Scottish building and was used by the erstwhile British government as their Viceroy’s retreat. A number of historic meetings have taken place here, particularly related to the Indian independence and the partition. There is a short guided tour for the ground floor and it is completely worth it. After independence, the Lodge became the President’s summer retreat but later the President donated it to set up the institute. The Indian flag flies high and I do not think I could have been happier & more excited- a lovely weather with temperature around 18° C, a colonial building, greenery all around, lots of history, & a camera-wielding N!
Next stop- the Mall. Obviously. Duh! Actually, not that obvious; we are hungry and want to settle down somewhere to grab a bite. We take a walk on the Mall Road till the Scandal Point and it is foggy now; we deserve a cup of something warm. We narrow down on Wake & Bake Café. Right opposite the police headquarters, is the small, unassuming café, ranked #1 on Trip Advisor. My kind of place! N, of course, is making faces at not going somewhere ‘desi’. We grab a window seat and quickly give our food order. We are famished and Cappuccino, Cold coffee, Chicken, peppers, chilies & rosemary pizza, Hummus & pita, and Carrot cake hardly seem adequate. Burp! The rain does not look like it is done with its daily target, but surprisingly, it is not irking me. I am quite enjoying it. Perhaps returning to the warmth of the Resort is what the Gods intend for us. & we have no idea about the surprise waiting for us there.
So I had booked a honeymoon package with the Resort. One of the things on the package was a romantic room decoration. Tee hee! I love seeing N embarrassed. Our room looks more wild than romantic. There is an interesting mix of balloons, flowers and leaves. I cannot stop giggling and N cannot stop shaking his head. I love the cheesiness of it all. For the decoration, I would give them 5/ 10 but for the effort, full marks! There are also fresh fruits & cookies. I do a little dance around the room. Marriage indeed brings excitement & happiness to life, in the form of honeymoon packages! The poor Resort staff are disappointed when N asks them to clear the decoration out within 15 minutes. But well, there was no place to sit. What could we have done? But guys, loved the enthusiasm. Thank you!
Day 2 starts with Annandale. It is Vijay Diwas today-the day India won the Kargil War. And it is an absolutely fantastic day to visit the Army Museum. We have asked our friendly cabbie to take us around. He willingly obliges. Me being me, I spend almost two hours in the museum, reading about every artifact on display. I have always held the defense forces in high esteem, especially the army. I strongly believe India is handicapped without them. These days, there is a flashflood in J&K, & the army is carrying out the rescue operations. J&K folks have called the army all sorts of names, forcing them to be withdrawn from the cities, & now seeking their help. It is an eye-opener how these guys serve the nation without expecting anything in return. The area around the Army Museum is a sight to behold too. A greenhouse, a golf course, gardens, and vantage seating points- trust the army to do a great job at whatever they do. Truly, they stay awake at the borders so that we can sleep peacefully.
So where is Sharma ji taking us next? (Psst, Sharma ji is our friendly cabbie.) We plan to head to Mashobra & Naldehra. The destinations are unimportant; it is the journey that holds value. Winding roads, picturesque play of the mountains and valleys- it seems I am in a picture postcard. I have come to Shimla twice earlier. But I have never felt so contented with this region. The Mashobra apple orchard is completely covered in clouds and the walk up to the Naldehra golf course does not seem too appealing, especially with the drizzle. But we are more than satisfied with the journey to the two places. We head back to our Resort for the second offering of the honeymoon package- a candlelit dinner. They arrange it for us in the small outhouse cottage they have. Now this is NICE!
& here is the last day. The day which is the reason for this trip. Today we experience the UNESCO heritage train ride from Shimla to Kalka. The station is a stone’s throw from the Resort. We are excited and are clicking selfies with the train in the backdrop. Of course, we are making a spectacle of ourselves and people are gaping at us, but we are too excited to care. We find our seats and find that the seat which is supposed to be for two is really just one & a half. Well, two thin people maybe but I am not thin by any stretch of imagination. It is good in a way as N & I sit cozily with each other. The rowdy boys from our bus are on the adjacent seat. N & I roll our eyes. The train is choc-a-bloc full. It is a tiny thing with almost no space for luggage. So do ensure you do not board the train with either large bags or with too many bags. The trains pulls out from the station and thus starts a beautiful journey. We travel through lush-green mountains, through almost 900 bridges and 100 tunnels in a weather that is pleasant. It rains too & we hurriedly close our windows, but the water finds its way in anyhow. People open their umbrellas. Yes. In the train. The family behind us is lamenting throughout. But we find all of it amusing, rather than annoying. The train brings us closer to nature. There are tiny stations along the way, with white cottages & blue roofs for stations, leaping right out of Malgudi Days. Contrary to what people think, the train has a decent speed, about 40 kmph. N clicks away while I soak in all that I can. This is surely going to remain etched in my memory for as long as I live…
The Vice Regal Lawn
The train comes to a halt at Kalka from where the broad gauge trains start. We board the Kalka Shatabdi which fascinates us in another manner. The train is spotless, the air-conditioning works marvelously, the seats are comfortable, the food is good, and the service impeccable. Soon, we are home. Our first heritage train ride has been memorable in more ways than one. Spotting & counting tunnels, a beautiful resort, soothing greenery all around, a salubrious weather, patriotic emotions, a candlelit dinner, & for the first time, not disliking Shimla…
P.S. Mind you, the train bookings were done almost two-three months in advance. I kept a lookout on when the ARS opened.