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Day 25: Kalka to Shimla to Kalka

Narrow gauge train
My young travel companion
Long tunnel
Station signs
Mountain-side town
Snow capped peaks
I can dig it.
Nifty carts

A UNESCO World heritage Site, the Kalka-Shimla Railway was bulit commencing in 1891. It connected Shimla, in the foothills of the Himilayas at 2186m altitude with Kalka, at an elevation of 658m.

The narrow-gauge rails are 762mm apart, less than half that of "normal" railways, allowing the engine and rolling stock to maneuver around 919 curves, with radii as small as 37.5m.

The line includes 864 bridges and 103 tunnels.

My train from New Delhi arrived about 6:30, and I hurried to buy my INR230 ticket and climb aboard for the 6 hour, 97km trek that I travelled more than 2250km to see.

It was totally worth it. I've posted a handful of photos, and I have dozens more of beautiful mountainscapes that are done no justice by the camera. You had to be there.

The air grew cooler and thinner as we ascended the mountains. There were at least 10 stops at stations along the way. Each had its own chai wallah, curry booth, and sweets shop. All of us hopped on and off, scurrying back when the engine honked its departure horn.

Manual switches and mechanical semaphores, driven by pushrods, cables, and pulleys still control traffic on the line.

Expecting a few tiny villages along the way, I was amazed to find huge towns each with thousands of people, houses decorating the steep rock cliffs like a European picture postcard.

I thought San Francisco had steep hills, but upon reaching Shimla, I realized my plan to stay a while and explore would be almost impossible. In the thin mountain air, at over 7000ft ASL, my body couldn't complete the 2km walk uphill to the post office to find a postcard. The taxi drivers refused to drive me such a short distance. Even at the cool temperatures, a veritable rainfall fell from my pores.

I returned to Kalka on the next train, the sun setting as we descended the steep winding rails.

I giggled as four young fellows eagerly debated cricket. Without knowing the language, I understood the conversation implicitly. One argued his opinion about his team, another took the contrarian view, just for spite, while the rest jeered and pointed out the merits of each. It was a scene you could see in any country, for any sport, on the merits of anything at all.

Noticing my observation, they were immediately curious to know my opinion, to which I explained that I had tried to learn the rules of the game a few nights previous, and gave up on trying to understand overs and wickets.

With their various degrees of English proficiency and confidence, we chatted for the next couple of hours back and forth in simple English. They even tought me some Punjabi, which I quickly forgot minutes later.

Our topics included politics, dating and marriage, the Indian baby girl problem, what -35C feels like, education, and anything else we could think of.

Asking if they had girlfriends, they proudly assured me that they did not, being devout Hindus and Seikh, and looking forward to a day when they will meet their wives to be. I remarked that it must be difficult for them, with only 700 girls for every 1000 boys. "No, we are just more motivated," they laughed. I remarked that with a population of over a billion people, reproduction didn't seem to be an issue. My words were a bit to complex. "India is good at babies!" I simplified to roaring applause and laughter. "yes, you are right", they confirmed.

Remarking that it was -35C back home that night, they asked, "How do you live?" I explained that in the winter we just adapted, staying inside most of the time except for the trips to and from work. "No, how to you live?" they repeated. Having never lived in insulated homes with central heat, the concept seemed impossible.

My new friends were a view into a fun, devout, positive, new India; they are driven to seek education, find and honour wives, raise children, and contribute in every way they can to their India.

None of their spiritual practices condoned drinking, so after our trip we shared chai in lieu of Kingfisher, took photos, and went our ways.

They invited me to join them on their journey, but I had a train back to New Delhi to catch. While waiting, I found some shops near the station, indulged in an Indian sweet or two, and picked up a blanket for the cold trip back.

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