So, with the damaged Royal Enfield Bullet packed up and transported off to Delhi, I abandoned plans for venturing further into Himachal Pradesh, and took the Kalka-Shimla Railway back down to Chandigarh.
At the station, I wasn’t sure which window to use: reserved or unreserved tickets? On the basis that I only had 15 minutes before the train, waiting on the platform, was due to leave, the queue for reserved tickets was much longer, and the two Europeans I spoke to in that queue were buying tickets for another day (and another railway line entirely), I went to the almost queueless unreserved window.
The man behind the counter was the same one I’d spoken to the night before, who’d said a first class ticket was Rs245 and I could buy it on the day. This morning, however, he told me there was no first class. Instead, I could buy a basic ticket for Rs40. Imagine, Britons, a six hour rail journey (London to Dundee, say) with tickets available on the day for 40p.
Then I realised what unreserved meant, and why it would have been worth buying a reserved ticket, if I’d had time to wait at the counter. The Rs40 ticket allowed me only onto one of the two end carriages, where everyone else who hasn’t got a reserved seat on the inner carriages, and only wants to pay Rs40 for a ticket, squeezes on. I managed to get a seat, but even that is of questionable benefit. For one thing, the seats, supposedly for two people, are only about 1.5 people wide. And next to me on mine was a Polish giant, 1.25 people wide. So only one of my buttocks ever made it onto my seat, and had to endure all the discomfort of six hours’ worth of sitting that is usually shared between both. Also, all the people who don’t get seats end up standing in the aisle, their bottoms and crotches sharing the same volume of space as your face.
Since I was facing backwards and on the aisle end/fraction of the seat, I didn’t get the full mountain railway viewing experience, which is best enjoyed from a forward facing window seat. From there, you can see the jungle ravines dropping away beneath you, and the full panoramas of dramatic hills and waterfalls opening up as you wind out into more open sections of the line. The best bits are when the track curves out away from the hillside, usually over a flimsy-looking brick viaduct, and you can see the cream, red, green and blue painted carriages ahead of you arcing around, then disappearing again into the forest. I saw this a few times, by peering across my oversized Polish neighbours, but they must have seen it dozens if not hundreds of times, all the way down. I didn’t get any photos, but the one below from Wikipedia gives you a good idea. I still think a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Mountain Railways of India is a good idea. But only if you get first class reserved tickets.
At Kalka, I found my way to the bus stand for the next leg back to Chandigarh. Two guys who’d been on the same train carriage and were also headed back there helped me find the right bus, take a valid seat, even stumped up Rs10 when the bus conductor baulked at my Rs500 note – though it’s technically only a fiver, in real terms it’s like trying to pay for a bus ticket with a £50 note. Even when someone does accept one, they eye it suspiciously in the light, as if I’d travel to India to steal ridiculously cheap goods and services with counterfeit currency. They chatted to me during the journey, the usual questions, the inevitable “are you married?” but were embarrassed when I laughed and said how predictable that had become. It turned out they, in their mid-20s, disagreed with the norm for marrying at that age and thought 30s would be better. Even the new generation, who want to change the traditions of the old, can’t help but fall into the same patterns of expectation.
Back at Punjab University, I met up with Goldie (it’s a nickname) from couchsurfing who I’d stayed with on my way to Shimla. We went out for beers and dinner with some of his friends. His roommate, Gaurav, was studying philosophy, and it wasn’t long before we got into a discussion on the topic “is feeling the mother of language?” For the record, I’m not sure. It’s plausible that historically, the requirement to communicate personal needs was the cause behind language’s development. But now it’s obviously possible to state a fact about which you have no emotions at all, or even for a computer program, which we can be even surer has no emotions, to do the same: “the red cone is on top of the blue cube”. But one could argue that simply understanding such a fact counts as having a feeling about it, even for the computer, according to some definitions of “feeling”. Philosophers, eh? Later, though, Gaurav and another friend tried to convert me to the teachings of controversial sex guru, bio-terrorist and Rolls Royce collector, Osho.
Some interesting things which I saw during the course of this day were:
- A holy man swathed in dirty robes, beads, etc (so far normal)… with a small inflatable orange horse.
- A man transporting 30-40 old car doors by bicycle.
- Two stray dogs locked together post-coitally in the ground of PU, and, inevitably, a student snapping them on a camera phone.
The next day was a Sunday, so Goldie was free from studies to join me for a bit of sightseeing. The first stop was the Rock Garden, a sprawling naive/outsider art sculpture/architecture/landscaping project by local mentalist/genius Nek Chand. There are 40 acres of twisting labyrinthine paths, walls of broken crockery and obsolete electrical sockets, and curtains of beaded pebbles and pots; around the next corner, you might find strange, looming alien shapes, or a stunning artificial canyon and waterfalls. Just when you think you might be near the end, you reach the best bit, gallery after gallery of cute human and animal figures, looking down at you in rows from just above head height.
We then headed out to nearby Pinjore to visit the Mughal Gardens, supposed to be one of the finest in India (and a fortiori, the world). They were… fairly nice, I suppose. Any possible serenity was destroyed by the lawn mower, and the two workers using an electric saw to cut out sections from a newly-laid marble floor for an inlaid design, and the piped music from speakers, which made the experience a bit like being in a lift while technicians were noisily repairing it. Further down the gardens, where these noises disappeared, it was actually quite peaceful. The bright, hazy sunlight put a washed out glow over everything which made it beautifully luxurious and calming, although it’s impossible to show this in photos (which just appear dull and lifeless) so I won’t try.
My next plan was to travel to Amritsar, but I’ve got plenty of time now before I go back to Delhi. Goldie invited me to stop off in Dhuri, a small town in rural Punjab, to stay with his family, which is where I’ll be heading next.