Travel '98: September India

There is only one way to travel when escaping into the hills and coolness of Simla. Peter Popham takes his seat on the ancient Viceroy's Toy Train
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Some places are steeped in the period of their prime, and to be properly enjoyed they must be approached with a certain etiquette. The bridge over the sea to Skye bothers many people; arriving in Victorian Brighton by motorway feels all wrong, somehow. And to go to Simla, the greatest of the Indian hill-stations, by aeroplane would be absurd. To go by road, on the other hand, would be a cruel self-punishment. The only right way up is by the Viceroy's Toy Train, Lord Curzon's crazy hobby horse, that winds and groans and squeals and pants 60 miles up into the Himalayas: perhaps the most stunning achievement of that master of imperial hubris.

It was also, as it happens, my first Indian train journey, and that is something for which there can be no satisfactory mental preparation. The experience begins with the buying of the ticket. As a foreigner paying in dollars or pounds you get special treatment, which means repairing to a booking hall where apparently a bomb has just gone off, blowing away the light fixtures and blackening the walls, but life staggers on as normal. Once there, you wait for an hour or two in the sort of long, dejected queue you thought you had left behind at home along with the P45; then pay a derisory price - the cost of what, a British Rail breakfast and a can of Bass? - for a second-class, air-conditioned luxury ride in one of the world's most legendary trains. Non-special treatment for natives means going to a massively more crowded booking hall elsewhere, apparently in the final stages of demolition, and paying the equivalent of the cost of two cups of British Rail tea for a seat in non-air-con second class - except that, unfortunately, it's booked solid for the next month so you're out of luck.

The journey starts off unremarkably. The platform is littered with sleepers (the human sort), and the weather is hot as blazes, as Delhi will stubbornly remain until the end of September at least. Hold on to that sensation: that special Indian summer nausea, a cocktail of sweat, grime, exhaustion and hysteria, is the reason why Simla was built, as an escape for the white man. You climb the mountain and discover autumn.

My train is, in fact, comfortable and cool, and sets off on time. At lunchtime, I poison myself with a greasy something. After lunch, the train stops between stations for an hour-and-three-quarters, while a crane is brought to remove the wreckage of the one immediately in front. Quietly I panic: the Simla connection from Kalka will be long gone - how am I going to get up the mountain? But when we finally arrive, the stolid little donkey of a train is still waiting, and it really is like a toy, painted blue and cream like something in an old nursery. Its progress up the mountains through successive layers of pines, cedars and firs is halting. Two hours late leaving, we arrive more than three hours late, each approaching huddle of cottages raising my hopes that we have finally made it.

I somehow thought of Simla as a village. It's not, it's a city, and capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh. And although its population has exploded tenfold since independence, what the British bequeathed to India was already a city in microcosm; or, rather, because British Simla always contained a strong dash of fantasy and wish-fulfilment, it was a magical amalgam of English city and English village; with the theatre and shops, the gossip and the buzz of a Bath or Harrogate, and the cottages, the gardens, the walks and the country church of a Cotswold village. And all this amidst the world's most amazing scenery.

But Simla has indeed exploded, and so, after all the false alarms, there is no mistaking the place when it does finally appear, long after nightfall: the whole of the steep hillside is ablaze with lights, like an electrified avalanche. Open the train door and the porters pounce; outside the station the taxi drivers in Japanese mini-vans are gathered like jackals. Yes, it's a city, and an Indian one at that. My driver, taking me to Chota ("Little") Simla, is plainly practising for some Himalayan mini-van Grand Prix - that or the flashing pink, green and yellow lights of the plastic kinetic icon on the dashboard have robbed him of his wits.

But the old ambivalence, schizophrenia, whatever you call it, persists: so Woodville Palace Hotel in Chota Simla, formerly a Maharajah's villa (the family still live there) is deliciously Simla-esque as I had imagined it: creaking wooden floors, brass bedsteads, views through the cottage- like windows of pines and cedars and lawns. And the British backbone of the town, the Mall, though fraying at the edges and in need of paint, is almost unchanged. The Gaiety Theatre, home of Simla's AmDrams (est'd 1837 - Members Only), looks as if it may fall down at any minute. But, in the meantime, they continue to insist on jackets and ties, and stage slightly bawdy Brian Rix farces, in English, to huge hilarity, in a theatre unchanged since Kipling performed in it (indifferently, they say).

The cosmetic changes to the town all heighten its slightly surreal quality: Christ Church has been painted a lurid yellow, the mock-Tudor gables of shops are picked out in turquoise or green, the lanes where Mrs Hauksbee and her fellow grass widows were hauled about in rickshaws are now the domain of fat, be-chiffoned Punjabis, tribals with rings in their noses, bearded Afghans. But spitting is still banned (fine: 50 Rupees), and cars, too, are prohibited. The spark of genteelness that animated the town still gleams politely.

Many people think Simla is a pointless sort of place these days. The heat-struck plainsman can far easier jump on a plane and fly to Europe, and the trekking types curl their lips at its overpopulation and mess. Good riddance to them: we connoisseurs of time travel have it all to ourselves.

How to get there

The cheapest flights to India are on Turkmenistan Airlines (0181-746 3080) from Birmingham and Heathrow via Ashkabad to Delhi, for around pounds 330. Fares on less exotic airlines are higher. Indian Government Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1X 2LN (0171-437 3677).

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