(Top photo: Our first view of the mountains from our hotel in Pathankot)
We had a sure sign that our journey has begun again and is in full flow – our train from Delhi to Pathankot (which has the brilliant name of JAM-JAT express, and I wonder if the reverse train is called the JAT-JAM express) was delayed by seven hours. And of course, as luck would have it, we didn’t know about the whole 7-hour delay all at one go, but only hour by hour, so from five in the morning I was waking up every hour to alarms and snoozing them and calling the station info-line and drifting off to sleep again only to be woken up by the next hourly alarm in what seemed like barely minutes to me. The worst kind of sleep. But finally, at noon, we pulled out of Nizamuddin Station and chugged off towards Pathankot.
We were off to Mc Leod Ganj, and the quicker and simpler way there from Delhi is by a twelve-hour direct bus, but I’m not a big fan of long bus rides unless they’re through particularly spectacular landscapes, and certainly not overnight ones, so when we found out about the alternative – mostly by train – I was immediately sold. If you look at the two routes on a map, the one we took does seem a little more than just a bit roundabout — a nine-hour train ride to Pathankot, then five hours by toy train to Kangra, and then an hour by bus to reach Mc Leod Ganj (with a change of bus at Dharamsala) – but the toy train ride is absolutely worth the extra time you take.
Anyway, back to Pathankot. Thanks to the train delay we had to stay the night at Pathankot – not part of the original plan – but we managed to drag ourselves out of bed bright and early to catch the 7AM train to Kangra. The train was a total delight, squeaky clean (even the loo!) and with generous sliding glass windows with no grills that you can stick your head out of and feel the breeze. For quite some distance it travels through the plains, mostly through fields of wheat and a few small towns, before it starts ascending into the mountains. There is only one track the entire way, except at stations, where we often had to stop for a long while to let the train going in the other direction pass. You can see our engine driver taking a break in the photo below – he’s the guy at the far left, dressed up in the same bright blue of the engine and the awning at the station.
The other cool thing is that there are platforms on either side of the train, so at every station there are people are streaming in and out from both directions. The only thing I really missed on the train was food – there isn’t the usual bustle of vendors at every station – and since we’d woken up early and skipped breakfast, we were eagerly looking out at every stop hoping for some yummy local snack, but were disappointed each time.
On the train, we met a guy from France – Lou – who’s also travelling around India for 6 months (but he’s almost at the end of his journey, and we’ve only just begun ours). He’s the guy in the photo, sharing the doorway with Iswar, and grinning away. Lou had never enjoyed trains before he came to India – he said that in France because the train is fully air-conditioned, all the windows on the trains are sealed up, and the doors only open at the stations, so there’s really no difference between a train and a flight. So he spends much of his time on the trains here hanging out of the doors!
And finally here we are, peeking out of our windows.
I’ve only ridden in one other toy train – the one in the Nilgiris, so the thrill of it for me was really something indescribable. It’s all the magic and romance of a train journey, but slowed down and miniaturized, it somehow makes you enjoy the experience so much more.
A friend in Delhi, Dilip Prakash (he’s the one who finally helped us on our last day in Delhi to find a UV filter and other accessories we needed for the new camera), is a photographer and has done a wonderful series of photographs documenting steam engines. The Kangra Valley Toy Train has a diesel engine so it’s not quite the same thing, but one thing just reminded us of the other, so I thought I’d leave two links to his work on steam engines for anyone who’s interested: