At a time when bullock-carts are used for towing Ferraris (a sequence from the latest Bollywood flick Ferrari Ki Sawaari), imagine if you too had to go on a summer trip to the cities ensconced between embracing rolling hills on bullock-carts, or, for that matter, ponies. So what made the hill stations of India some of the most-visited tourist destinations despite being well-connected?
The introduction of toy trains to destinations like Ooty, Darjeeling, Shimla and Matheran have made getting there a lot more smoother and not to mention, a lot more fun! Besides the thrill of the ride, these trains, which could find a place in any children’s book, have contributed to the boom in tourism numbers. An excursion to hilly terrains is not just a way of escaping the scorching summer heat but, more often than not, these toy trains operating on narrow gauge tracks draw rail buffs in huge numbers for whom the journey offers more excitement than the destination!
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
Not meant for the hurried traveller (8 hours approximately), the Darjeeling railway was the first hill railway to start in India. It runs between the plains of New Jalpaiguri and the hills of Darjeeling, while passing through the bustling town of Siliguri. Allowing an uninterrupted view of the Himalayas, sans any tunnels en route, the train chugs up through clouds enveloped in mist. Rail enthusiasts curiously await the encounters with several zig-zag curves, especially ‘agony point’ – a spiral ascend that churns the contents of any stomach. Today, Darjeeling is synonymous with the toy train to the extent that the landscape seems incomplete without it.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway (Destination: Ooty)
A summer weekend getaway for the British during the colonial days, Ooty, a major tourist attraction, enjoys the reputation of being called the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’. The journey to Ooty on its toy train from Mettupalayam (4.5 hours approximately) snakes through rolling forest clad hills with green tea plantations. Amidst the dazzling view of the picturesque surroundings, passengers can watch women picking tea leaves on the way. The enthralling train ride is punctuated by quaint arched bridges, long tunnels and gushing streams. A trip to this paradise is worth the effort, if only for the tantalizing train ride.
The Kalka-Shimla Rail Route
A favourite haunt for summer vacationers, Shimla and its toy train remains a tourist delight. Passing through 103 tunnels and 700 lofty bridges, this train takes approximately five hours to cruise from Kalka to Shimla. The experience of comfortable reversible cushioned chairs, fancy interiors and the view of green stretches from the wide glass windows offer a unique panorama that is unmatched. With two-thirds of its track being curved, this rail route offers the steepest rise in altitude and is featured in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Matheran Light Railway
Running between sunrise and sunset, this toy train takes about two hours to reach Matheran from Neral. Earlier, this line used to be shut from July to August, with rain gods playing spoilsport as the risk of landslides was high. To the delight of tourists, the Matheran Light Railway runs during the monsoons now. Hugging the hillside, the train halts at a couple of stations and passes through one short tunnel known as ’One Kiss Tunnel’. The best part about this mountain track is that it is out of bounds for any vehicular traffic (even bicycles are banned).
It’s not surprising then that Darjeeling, Ooty and Shimla Mountain Railways enjoy heritage status by being accorded a listing as UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. So, get ready to beat the heat and allow yourself a cooling escape with the charm of old-world travel in these toy trains. Book your tickets for the joyride well in advance as there’s no ‘tatkal’ facility!