In the days when the British ruled India there were many problems for an expatriated Brit to contend with but one of the most serious was the heat. The average chap sent out to make his fortune or defend his nation's economic and political interests wasn't bred to deal with saturation humidity and thermometer-bursting temperatures. To cope with these extremes, each summer the government, civil service and everyone with the wherewithal to do so would flee from Calcutta and Delhi and literally 'head for the hills'. In 1864 the city became the official Summer Capital of the British and took on the mantle of the 'Queen of the Hill Stations'.
Located up at around 7000 feet in altitude, Shimla offered cool temperatures even in the midst of the summer. It was also a pretty good place to send the ladies (imagine 50 degrees C in corsets) and soon acquired a reputation for being a bit racy. Every season ships full of well-bred husband-hunting ladies would be sent over to find their men amongst the army officers, civil servants and businessmen of Shimla. But for now, let's look at the problem of how you can actually get there and that's where the Kalka Shimla Railway comes in.
The KSR is what's known as a 'Toy Train' - a narrow gauge railway designed to climb mountains. Work started on the line in 1898 and it opened for business in November 1903. Today, over 100 years later, it's still the traveller's best option for getting to Shimla, going much closer to the city and costing a lot less than flying. And of course, it's also a heck of an experience.
There are several toy trains including the Himalayan Queen and the Shivalik Express that roll up and down the mountain along the Kalka Shimla route. They are scheduled to meet the trains from Delhi to Kalka and this is how we reached the KSR. We picked up the overnight mail train in Delhi. Arriving at Kalka at around 5 am, we found the station to be a blessed relief after the grime and grimness of Old Delhi Station. Leaving the 'big' train it was easy to find the toy trains at the end of the platform we'd arrived on. We found our carriage and settled in with about half an hour to wait.
The carriages are small with just three seats across and only about eighteen seats in total. Our carriage had a toilet and a carriage attendant to feed and look after us. He had a small area with a water boiler for making tea and enough space to store a few cardboard boxes of various goodies. The seats were upholstered in an itchy-scratchy fabric not seen outside India since the 1950s.
We had booked the early morning train, thinking it would give us the best views. In November, the afternoon trains are likely to arrive after dusk so travellers could well miss the best views. As it was, I missed a lot by reverting to my normal behaviour of spending most of the journey asleep.
Our carriage had the four of us, a handful of other tourists and a couple of Indian families, each with plenty of small children. We were the last to get in and most of the luggage storage space had already gone. Our friends travel with suitcases only slightly smaller than an Indian village house so we needed to shuffle bags around to make sure there was space for everything and the poor carriage attendant ended up with their giant suitcases in his zone.
We set off in the dark and were soon served with a cup of tea and a small packet of biscuits. Hubby and I were sitting in a set of two individual seats facing each other and had a small lift-up table. Our friends were nearby and the attendant brought them a collapsible table which excelled at doing just that - i.e. collapsing. The attendant also handed out bottled water which he placed in the overhead luggage racks.
After about an hour the skies started to lighten and we prepared for a sunrise but of course, in the mountains things don't always go to plan. Rather than a proper sunrise, you just find that after a while it's light but the sun is off somewhere behind one of the mountains so you don't really see anything. The scenery is undeniably spectacular with sheer cliffs covered in deep green foliage and occasional views of tiny villages or towns hanging precariously on the sides of the mountain.
The children had started the journey as quiet, subdued little darlings but as time passed and the sun came up they morphed into irritating little demons who couldn't sit still. The space between the facing seats had never been designed for 21st century leg length or deportment but it was impossible to leave your legs in the aisle without the kids running over them. What is it that's so fascinating about a train toilet that every child needs to go and inspect it roughly every 25 minutes?
About half way through the journey we stopped at a station to get out and stretch our legs. The station was cute in a mock-Tudor sort of way and was the loading point for the attendants to collect our breakfasts. We all got off and wandered around for a few minutes, taking photos of the train and the views.
Back on the train and breakfast was served along with another cup of tea. Breakfast is included in the fare, which is a good thing since there's no way you'd pay for it but at that time of the morning, it's a good thing to get a bit of food. We got a sort of omelette sandwich.
As you get closer to Shimla the views become increasingly spectacular but the novelty of the train starts to fade and you can't help just wanting it all to be over. Compared with other toy trains I've taken, the journey is the least nauseating and uncomfortable but it's still a bit of an ordeal. The train mostly travels in the same direction - rather than zigging and zagging like some. It also doesn't have any really steep sections where you feel as if you are in a sort of funicular. It just gently and slowly shuffles up the mountains. If you can get seats on the right hand side of the carriage you will get better views - ditto if you can go in a forward facing direction. However, you won't get any choice at all - the train booking system allocates you a seat so relax and just go with what you get.
We booked our seats on-line through the IRCTC booking site and had everything fixed up about 6 weeks before we travelled because we were arriving just before Diwali. However, at most times, the line from Kalka to Shimla is quite busy so don't leave your booking too late. Our first class seats cost £4 or £5 each and included refreshments.