You can take the toy-train if you want. But do you have the time? This is what everyone asked me.
I was at Bir and wanted to take the train to Pathankot. Bir with its monasteries and cafés is also the paragliding capital of the country. I was keen to experience what Angus McDonald, author of India’s Disappearing Railways: A Photographic Journey had referred to as ‘The most beautiful railway line in the world’.
To ensure zero confusion and to confirm the details, a day prior to the journey, I cycled to Ahju. Ahju lies on the narrow-gauge line that runs from Joginder Nagar to Pathankot and is the station nearest to Bir. From Paprola — a bigger station — I took the train.
The train stopped at three stations on its way from Joginder Nagar before it reached Paprola. I reached in time to walk around the station and also peek at the engines taking rest. Prior to those 15 minutes I would not have used ‘ethereal’ for a rail station and ‘cute’ for a rail engine. Here, they made sense. The fare to Pathankot is ₹35 for second-class and ₹270 for first-class. Not for nothing did travel writer Stephen McClarence say, “The Kangra Valley Railway is a collector’s item and a miser’s dream.” The train left at its stipulated time, 10.50 a.m.
It crossed villages, many a time cutting through fields or brushing a compound wall.
Sanjeev Awasthi in his article, ‘Romancing the Kangra Rail’, describes the route: “The most picturesque parts of the valley are exposed to the view, the stretch of 18 miles from Mangwal to Kangra, for example, lies through country unsurpassed for its majestic grandeur with the majestic Ban Ganga gorge and the deep Kangra chasm as two piece de resistance.”
More people boarded the train at Kangra. All of them were locals. For someone not in a hurry, the stops appeared short. At a couple of stations I heard hawkers selling groundnuts and tea. At a station where the train stopped for its twin to cross in the opposite direction (it’s a single track) I walked out to get pakodas . I asked a co-passenger if the train was running on time. He replied: “This is a picnic train.”
The train skirted around Pong Dam for roughly half an hour. It was a beautiful sight — mountains and water stretching till infinity in the same frame. I caught a glimpse of snow-capped peaks all along the way till about 4 p.m. Then, at 4.45 pm, we reached the plains of Nurpur Road. Sunset was just before Pathankot, a breathtaking sight.
Already, before we reached the destination at 6.10 p.m., I had made up my mind to take the ride back. To roll up towards the snow-clad Dhauladhar.
I thought of the people at Bir, and wondered why they chose to take the road instead. What would they do with those few hours saved? Like McClarence, I thought: “Admittedly, the journey (160 km), winding past the Himalayan foothills, takes just short of 10 hours. But what’s the hurry? This is a perfect example of slow travel at its — well — slowest.”
The writer is a history buff and avid blogger.