Boris Blanche loves anything rail related and the Himalayan Toy Train.
Is no exception. As it slowly emerged from the infamous “kissing tunnel” and settled into its stop at ‘Barog’ Station. The chai stand looked busy for those who like their tea milky and sweet, and a quick glance at the station signs provides a reminder, as tourists and locals alike re-trace the journey taken by the forefathers of the British Raj.
Barog is one of many stopping points in the lovely sixty-mile journey up from Kalka and along the Himalayan way, as the train winds itself up and around the picturesque foothills, I am constantly rewarded with stunning and amazing vistas; deep valleys, distant tall mountains and lush green undergrowth all merging into one another with each twist and turn of the train track. The train finally trundles into Shimla as nigh time begins to fall, and the railway staff break the mountain air stillness with their cries. As we’re whisked away by a private car, we get a glimpse of our home for the next three nights – the magnificent Oberoi Cecil Hotel.
The Cecil is one of the great fixtures of Shimla. Built in 1883 and reopened after extensive restoration in 1997, it easily conveys the luxury of a bygone age. A huge atrium provides the milieu for the reception area, and for those with valley view rooms, the morning starts with stunning views across the foothills towards Kalka.
Shimla itself is a total anachronism. Why is there a town of 200,000 plus people half way up the mountains, with houses and hotels alike clinging to the steep sides? The answer of course lies in the history of the British in India, and on our trip we are lucky to have this explained to us by local historian Raja Bhasin, who has written numerous books on the subject. He is also a consultant on the Channel 4 series “Indian Summers”, and his morning talk sets the scene for a day of sightseeing. The Vice Regal Lodge is the centrepiece to this and towers above the surrounding areas; on a good day you get the amazing combination of the lodge silhouetted against the distant peaks of the Himalayans – sadly for me too much cloud puts a stop to that.
From the lodge we visit the Hindu Monkey Temple before spending an afternoon in Shimla’s mall, complete with its historic Church, street vendors pretty much unchanged since Kipling wrote of them, and the famous Gaiety Theatre which has been the scene of many amateur dramatic performances. The mall is alive with the business of the day but is pleasantly not a tourist trap and its setting, with the town spreading down from the surrounding hills into the valleys below, provides a spectacular backdrop. Afterwards it’s just a short walk back to the hotel and some much called for rest and recovery ahead of the promise of the next day’s adventures.
This is an incredible adventure packed with ancient traditions and treasures, we explore colourful Barog, before travelling in to the Himalayan foothills and onwards to Shimla – the sole surviving Himalayan kingdom, shrouded in mystique, and steeped in history.