Hitching rides to the Kangra Fort and Brajeshwari Devi temple on a scooter, we are quite pepped up about making it to the tranquil town of Bir. The famous adage of ‘The journey is more important than the destination’, is about to be realised. In this age of ‘all planned travel’ – courtesy of google and prior bookings made possible due to the internet, impromptu travel has taken a backseat. We are told that going by bus through Palampur and Baijnath is the only way. One scooter guy whom we have hitched rides with, asks us ‘Do you know about the toy train that takes you to Baijnath?’
After years of solo travelling across India, one thing I do know is that I do not like planned vacations where everything has been meticulously researched and we know how the day is going to pan out. The charm of unplanned journeys is something else. Many-a-time I’ve reached ISBT Kashmere Gate in Delhi not knowing which bus to the mountains I was going to take.
Hardly anyone knows about the timings of the train that we have been told about. Not knowing what’s going to happen next has got us sold on the mode of transport we want to take to reach Baijnath. I ask the kinnow seller while buying some oranges if he knows when the train would leave and from where?! Pat comes the reply, ‘Why do you want to go through that little train which takes forever to reach?’ One auto guy tells us he knows the way to the railway station and that the train is supposed to depart between 11:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon.
It sounds enigmatic, in the days of fixed departures we have stumbled upon a train that has random timings.
The auto hurriedly takes us past Kangra town and after 10 minutes drops us near a bridge which is seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We are near the Kangra Mandir train station that is accessible through a narrow lane lined with dhabas, barbers and flower sellers with some small homes thrown in. Kangra Valley narrow gauge train is the name of the railway that we are seeking.
It feels like an abandoned station. My first thought is that the train has already left; the ticket window is closed and there are only two other people wandering. The station master was spotted and told me that the train is late and would arrive by 1230 and that the ticket window will open fifteen minutes prior to the arrival of the train.
At only two and a half feet wide it is a very slender track. There are six bogies in the slow chugging train, with every coach having a 37 people seating capacity. The train hums to a halt at the station at around 1245, our twenty rupee tickets are going to carry us to Baijnath-Paprola. The Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas are visible in the far distance.
The seats are comfortable and the windows- bare and open, affording unhindered views. It is a vintage delight to see life in small sleepy towns with the snowy peaks drawing closer. There are no tourists on the train; only locals. The railway line was apparently damaged some time back causing the train to stop services and that the service has resumed just a week ago. Unlike other Himalayan trains, there are only two tunnels on the entire route on the Kangra Valley Railway. We pass through thick forests as the train nears Nagrota and then continues to wind its way and ascend to the tea garden town of Palampur. On sharp bends just before Palampur, it sometimes appears as if the train is headed straight for the snows only to change direction and keep following the foothills.
Good to know:
There are as many as six trains per day from Pathankot that meander along the foothills of the Himalayas and some go as far as Jogindernagar, near Mandi. Advance booking is not possible although train timings can be found out. Sometimes the trains run full depending on the season and even though you may have bought a ticket, there is no guarantee of getting space to stand, let alone sit. It is a great way to travel back in time, if you have a penchant for aimless gazing into the mountains. McLeodganj & Dharamsala can be accessed from Kangra. The Kangra Valley ‘Toy Train’ is also a good way to plan for the religious tour of the temples of ‘4 devi’ or ‘5 devi’ that all lie close to each other.
The 164 Km journey from Pathankot to Jogindernagar takes around 10 hours and the major stations enroute are Jawalamukhi Road, Kangra, Nagrota, Palampur, and Baijnath Paprola.
The 1929 Kangra Valley Railway is in the tentative list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
Everyone knows about the Darjeeling Toy Train and the Kalka-Shimla toy train. It was one beautiful adventure to have experienced this journey on the Kangra Valley Railway.