Himalayan Queen

Although I don’t consider myself a serious buff, I enjoy riding on trains, and I use them at home in the U.S. as often as it’s practical. It’s a great way to see the landscape you are traveling through, especially if you aren’t in a big hurry. I first learned about the Himalayan Queen “toy train” from watching Michael Palin’s Himalaya series s several years ago. As the idea of this adventure in India started to take hold (and that series had quite a lot to do with it), fitting in a ride on this train became a cornerstone of the trip for me.

The Himalayan Queen is one of several narrow-gauge “hill train” lines in India. It runs from Kalka, a town of about 30,000 in the plains 175 miles north of Delhi, to Shimla, a town of about 150,000 people in the Himalayan foothills that was once the summer capital of the British Raj. The rail line took five years to build, opening in 1903. The track from Kalka to Shimla is only about 60 miles long, but it covers an altitude gain of 5,000 feet, passing through 102 tunnels and 20 stations, around 900+ curves, and over 864 bridges on the way. Most of the twenty stations are tiny, and were originally built simply as places where the steam engines could refill with water. A few have grown up into good-sized towns in the last hundred years or so. The Kalka-Shimla line was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008.

We booked our tickets in advance, since this route often sells out even in the hump season. We chose the itinerary set up for tourists coming from Delhi, which meant catching the train from the Sarai Rohilla station at 5:45 a.m., arriving in Kalka at about 11 a.m., catching the toy train at 12:10 p.m. and arriving in Shimla by 6 p.m.

Right, a super early departure, and the Sarai Rohilla station was out of the city center and not very close to where we were staying. Ouch. It would have been a little better if we’d been in our original hotel, but not by much. There was nothing for it but to grit our teeth and get up at 0-dark-thirty to catch our cab to the station. Since it was only our second full day in India, we were doomed to be tired anyway no matter what time we got up.

The very nice young man on duty at the K-11 hotel arranged a cab for us at something like 4:30. When we got downstairs, we were met by a driver and his old black Ambassador, the iconic Delhi taxicab. The car started making fantastic noises before we even got into it. The hinge for the trunk made a magnificent squeak as we got the luggage into it, and once we were in the cab we were treated to a chorus of creaks and rattles that prompted Dan to get out his recorder to capture them.

It was fascinating to see the city in the dark, before most people were up and about. We saw lots of stray dogs, cycle rickshaws lined up on the sidewalk with their drivers sleeping under them, cows grazing on garbage in the streets, and food and chai vendors serving early-morning patrons around their braziers by the side of the road.

Although we thought we had left plenty of time to get to the station—even Delhi does not have traffic at 5 a.m.—our poor driver didn’t really know how to get there, and stopped to ask for directions at least five times. As time started getting short, Dan finally pulled out his GPS to see if he could find our way. The driver was only too happy to collaborate with Dan and follow the GPS directions, and we did end up making it to the station in the nick of time. We had a bit of a mad dash across a roughly paved lot, up a large flight of stairs, then through the x-ray machine and down another one to get to our platform. We found our compartment, thanks to a helpful commuter on the same platform, and the printed passenger lists posted on each car. We got ourselves and our luggage settled, and then we were able to relax.

The first part of the ride to Kalka was not very eventful. We did get to see the sun come up, but the train’s windows were so cloudy it wasn’t easy to see much of the scenery going by. We took the opportunity to doze a bit. After a few hours, a passenger sitting across the aisle from Dan struck up a conversation with him, asking about the folding keyboard for his iPod Touch, and they chatted for the last hour of the ride. He was a professional man, taking a holiday with his wife and two daughters. They discovered a shared love of music, and soon were swapping iPods and laptops back and forth to share songs. At one point, his kindergarten-aged daughter came up to Dan and said, “Excuse me, your face is looking very cute!” Another great interaction.

Once we got into Kalka, we had a bit of time in the station before boarding the toy train and starting on the fun part of the journey. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.