Simla-> Kalka-> Delhi Oct. 14 ’16

This [Simla-Kalka] train ride, despite the heat, length of time, and cramped quarters was absolutely worth doing! The picturesque multiple-tiered and arch supported stone bridges, tunnels short and long, gorgeous and ever changing mountain vistas, and changing vegetation were stunning. There are a number of heritage train stations along the line that are also beyond adorable…

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Woke at the crack of dawn to find that my body was doing it’s  natural female letting go thing, which definitely explained yesterday’s tearfulness on the physiological level…

But, no rest for the wicked, as they say, so I got myself up and power-walked back to The Coffee House for another fantastic breakfast and coffee sitting on one of the back balcony overlooking the town terraces and Himalayan foothill mountains.  On the way back out of town to fetch my luggage, I observed a family of monkeys clambering down the side of the last building of The Mall from the roof using drainpipes and telephone cables, and was deeply touched by the baby of the family making his brave yet cautious effort while her mum watched intently.  The wee one made little noises of trepidation the entire time “ooh, eeeh, umm, ohoooh” I could hear his thoughts, “Umm, I’m going to try this out… Um, oh dear, ok, annnd…. umm, ok I’ll try this this way, oh jeez, I’m not sure now…” Of course he made it safely and he and mum caught up to the rest of the group.  It was very sweet. These are the kinds of monkey behaviours I like, and when they’re quietly preening each other while basking in the sun on top of the walls, etc.  I snatched my bags after bidding good-bye to my pet spider “Bob-Ji” (all my pet spiders are named “Bob”, but since this was an Indian spider, I felt he should have an Indian inflection to his name) who kept guard in my bathroom during my stay, and walked downhill to the train station.

I was sorry to be leaving Simla.  I realized that like Dharmsala it’s “India-Lite” in that it’s a friendly, clean and safe tourist town, though in two days I had seen most of what it had to offer.  I was also super excited for the excruciatingly slow “toy”train ride along the  World Heritage Simla to Kalka line (built in 1906, one travels 96kms, through 102 tunnels, and over 988 bridges in 6 hours).  I got into the 1st class car, and was astounded by how narrow and tiny the train was altogether- economy class in airplanes have higher ceilings and more leg room- and I felt deeply sorry for the gigantic German tourists squeezing themselves onto the miniature bench seats.  Everyone in the train was very friendly, but we had to be as we sat knee to knee!  This train ride, despite the heat, distance and cramped quarters was absolutely worth doing! The picturesque multiple-tiered and arch supported stone bridges, tunnels short and long, gorgeous and ever-changing mountain vistas, and changing vegetation were stunning.  There are a number of heritage train stations along the line that are also beyond adorable, and seem to have no other function except to be perfectly kept up with gardens, lovely hanging planter baskets and shining sky blue and white tiled water stations, so the station master cum gardener can stand proudly in front of it and wave the train on with his green flag.  I was sitting facing the rear of the train, so had real difficulty getting photos of these quaint jewel-like train stations in time.  I would go back and do it all again to get a lot more photos.  There were many instances where we on the train were looking down onto roadways, and they had an awful lot of views of rock faces, landslide areas, and dust.  The vegetation as we wound our way down from elevation was an ever-changing delight and wonder.  The tops of the mountains in Himachal Pradesh are very dry, water is pumped and trucked up to towns and city cisterns, so leaving Simla initially the landscape was quite sere with short grass, shrubs, pine trees and stands of Prickly Pear and Danda Thor cacti! Only at elevation, there was also a rarely seen tree with fine pink blossoms that rivaled cherry blossoms in loveliness, although they were far more delicate.  We later reached the pine forest level, and it was a gorgeous sight as each pine needle glinted and gleamed in the sunshine as if it had been polished, and the colour was  vibrant and fresh. As we continued to descend, the pine gave way to deciduous trees like mountain ash and arbutus, which, again, if you live in British Columbia and have ever been traveling through the interior and Okanagan, they don’t seem so exotic- but it was good to see that a lot of these forests have been preserved and the hills not completely denuded. And of course, the wildflowers grew in colourful profusion at every point down the mountains. The flowers in India… Incomparable.

We finally arrived at Kalka, a completely unremarkable and purely utilitarian transportation hub town on the border of Himachal Pradesh.  There I joined a tour group of Canadians, Brits and Germans in the “Executive” waiting room, which had a lovely washroom, air-conditioning and comfey couches to enjoy while waiting for the Kalka to Delhi train.  Amusingly, a couple of the ladies there recognized me from my wanders in the streets of Dharmsala, and they happened to be from Vancouver.  We all got onto a regular express train to Delhi, and I appreciated the reclining chair, A/C- and the meal and 1L water bottle provided.  It wasn’t immaculate, but it was definitely a clean train- I might have been one of the dirtiest things on it!

Train travel is definitely an improvement over bus travel, but one does get a view of the town garbage tips and constant litter beside the tracks, which is quite sad.  Except for the upsetting amount of garbage Indians strew everywhere, the views are still much more picturesque, and a waxing gibbous moon was shining outside my window.

The garbage everywhere, though… When in India, it’s hard to ignore the reality that single serving wrappers and plastic everything are both the bane of human existence and the very thing that gives us the quality of life and health that we enjoy- India simply does not have the infrastructure for human waste and garbage yet.  There were a couple of recycling bins in the bigger towns such as Panaji in Goa, and Dharmsala, that have a very specific context which makes it a place where recycling would be considered desirable and put the resources towards it. I read an interesting Indian magazine article; an interview with a grassroots social activist working to illustrate the effect that the Indian caste system has on how things get done in the country.  The lowest castes traditionally have the dirtiest jobs handling waste and garbage, the higher castes have never had a part in dealing with it.  So in a weird way, the garbage is a cultural blind spot brought on by the caste system. It’s almost not their fault. The caste system makes it very difficult for the upper caste people to put their minds to problems that are “beneath” them, like sanitation, garbage collection, sewage. It’s actually quite ridiculous that India has no recycling program nor proper sewage and water works, but it’s definitely a hangover from India’s historical context. Bureaucrats and officials in high levels of government LITERALLY have not been capable of wrapping their heads around managing garbage because it should not even be on their radar- they’re too “upper class”, it’s not something they have ever been concerned about in their caste- it just gets taken away. This is literal, India just dumps everything, and the dumps are just about full.  Whereas, there has been very little improvement for the working conditions of those people who belong to the lower caste because there is little top-down leadership on these issues. This activist really hammered that people of the lower caste were dying when working to empty out septic tanks due to suffocation, the oxygen content is so low and the gaseous offsets of the waste literally suffocates them. Most towns and cities have never built sewer systems.  The officials go on inspection and since they don’t see women belonging to the lower caste carry baskets of human waste on their heads in such a project, they consider the matter fine.  It’s a socio-cultural issue, according to this activist.

Arriving in Dehli again, this time by train, I was happy I wasn’t spending more than an overnight once again. I got to see the sprawl and living conditions of the poor people living near the railway lines while heading through the city to the New Delhi central station.  I’m sure once I got into a nice area and a hotel, that there would be lots of really interesting cultural sites and historical areas that would be amazing to see, but I just wasn’t ready to do Delhi travel in India. Call me a chicken, and I’ll accept that.

I was picked up from the New Dehli train station with little hassle by the driver supplied by “Bloom Rooms” hotel.  The poor guy (whom I discovered was, you guessed it, from Dharmsala) had to run to the opposite side of the station when I failed to wait for him on the platform.  I was sorry to have done that to him because Sanay was one of those devastatingly handsome, tall, bearded Indian men.  Oh yes, there are a lot of very tall, devastatingly handsome, full bearded Indian men in India. When Indian men are devestatingly handsome, they are truly and ridiculously handsome. It’s devestating.  Anyway. I was sorry to see him go.

“Bloom Rooms” in New Dehli, by the way, is an absolutely charming contemporary hotel very near to the train station that takes one to Agra.  I highly recommend it.  Everything is very Western design and Western clean- and the charming beech wood, white and yellow rooms have bunkbeds! I tumbled myself into the gorgeous shower and then into bed as quickly as possible.  Next stop is Agra for the Taj Mahal… tomorrow.