The thought of leaving the beach causes me pangs of regret, as I am not ready to leave yet. I have really enjoyed my early morning walks along the cliffside path, and my sunset swims in the gentle surf. I have made friends across the rooftop breakfast table at Debra’s guesthouse, had dinner with the couple I met in Alleppey, and met a “swimming friend” Piret, a lovely woman from Switzerland whom I met while swimming in the surf. We have taken to meeting up for conversation at the popular “Coffee Temple” along the cliffside path.
Piret has been in Varkala for four months now, but must go back to Switzerland to see her children. She plans to come back next winter for six months, and suggests perhaps we could share a flat next winter to save the expense of our respective hotels. I can’t imagine where I will be next month, I tell her. Let alone next year.
But at the same time, I know I will return to Varkala one day. There is just something special about this place, with all the comforts of a beach resort, yet still it manages to maintain an intimate ambiance.
The only thing that makes leaving the beach tolerable is knowing I will be returning once I work my way north to Goa, another beachside destination along India’s western coastline in another week. But for now, I have a date for a ride on a Unesco World Heritage train!
Friends and followers know how much I love a train ride. I’ve always been a bit of a train nut, going out of my way to ride the rails, particularly when the train has historical significance or notoriety. India’s entire rail system is noteworthy in its own right. With almost 60,000 miles of track traversing the length and breadth of the subcontinent, it’s the fourth largest railway network in the world employing 1.4 million people. Train travel in India is frequent, efficient, and affordable. Local passenger trains are not luxury travel by any means, but comfortable. In fact, the car interiors haven’t changed much since the month I spent traveling across India in 2002.
What has changed, however, is the integration of technology! Instead of waiting in line in the crowded train stations, it is now possible to buy tickets in advance online, choosing class of service and requesting seating type (upper, lower, side berth, etc) India’s train class is a bit confusing and requires a tutorial or two, but once you get the hang of what type of seat you prefer, it’s a snap to confirm. (Tip: Should you ever need train information regardless of country, be sure to check out “The Man in Seat 61.”) IRCTC even has an app for the smart phone that not only lets you see availability, but will tell you where your car is positioned along the route, on which platform the train will be arriving, and if the train is on time. Once I got the knack of it, I was able to wait at the exact spot along the platform for my assigned car. Just astonishing efficiency for such a chaotic culture!
India Railways also operates quite a few tourist trains with names like “Palace on Wheels” and “Maharajas’ Express,” all catering to well heeled travelers, both local and international. But by far, the most intriguing trains are famous not for their luxury, but for their historic significance and impressive engineering feats. Three of these mountain railways have been grouped together to be recognized as “Mountain Railways of India,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, and the Kalka Shimla Railway.
Spread far and wide across the subcontinent, this trio of mountain railways utilizes a series engineering marvels in the form of switchbacks, loops, hairpin turns, tunnels, and bridges to gain significant altitude at a sustainable grade. These historic railways serve as a “Holy Trinity” to a train nut like me. I had hoped to ride all three.
The British are credited with much of India’s railway system, as they orchestrated the building of railways in the late 19th and early 20th century, primarily for transporting goods across the country. The railways also provided access to India’s “Hill Stations,” small towns high in the mountains providing ideal climate for growing the Brit’s favorite beverage, tea. These hill station towns evolved into mountain resorts, providing an escape from India’s oppressive heat and humidity to the cool mountain air. Therefore, these mountain trains became known as the “Hill Station Trains.” Each one of these historic mountain trains has some feature which makes it unique.
My first experience in riding one of the hill station trains was back in 2002, when I rode the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway train, which covers 55 miles from Siliguri to Darjeeling. Opened in 1881, it was the first of these hill station trains, and still serves today as the “Darjeeling Mail Train.” Beginning at 330 ft elevation, rising to 7,200 ft, it does so via a series of loops and switchbacks. The steepest sections with the greatest elevation gain are achieved through use of the “Z-reverse” whereby an engineer steps off the train and switches the track, allowing the train to zigzag up the mountain by reversing directions. I wish I had better photos of this amazing train journey, as I recall men hanging off the train, riding on the roof, etc. However, this was back in the days before digital photography where I had only 36 snaps per precious roll of film.
The Nilgiri Mountain Train would be my second in the Mountain Railways of India trifecta, traversing only 29 mi from the town of Mettupalayam to the hill station of Udagamandalam, (also known as Ootacamund, or “Ooty” for short. Is it any wonder?) The route is named after the Nilgiri Hills, also known as the Blue Mountains of Southern India.
Train tickets go quickly on these trains, as not only are they a major tourist attraction, they also still serve as the major method of transport feeding off the main line into the hill stations. Not being able to find availability online, I decided to try a travel agent in Fort Kochi upon my immediate arrival into India.
During my first attempt at obtaining a ticket, I was told it was “impossible.” The train had been booked up for months. I protested, “But you didn’t even ask when I wanted to travel! What if I have ‘months’ to wait? You didn’t ask how many seats I need. Only one. There’s always room for one more!” He wouldn’t hear it. Wouldn’t even bother to check. So I left and went to the travel agency around the corner, where the man (who turned out to share my same last name) patiently looked through every day, one at a time. Finally, he found one remaining seat on Leap Day, the only availability for two months out. “BOOK IT!” I exclaimed! And so, reluctantly as Leap Day approached, I left the beach behind as I headed inland for Mettupalayam to cross off the second in my trifecta of the “Mountain Trains of India” train rides.
Unfortunately, the third of India’s Mountain Railways will have to wait. I had a ticket booked on the Kalka Shimla Railway in the foothills of the Himalayas of northern India in late March. My plan was to cross it off the list on my way to meet my tour of Pakistan. We all know how that ended.
I hadn’t planned to ask India Railways for a refund. Since my Kalka Shimla ticket was less than twenty bucks, I figured requesting a refund from the USA during a pandemic crisis was more trouble than it was worth. However, I didn’t have to request it. The refund came about a month after I returned, along with a polite note explaining that all train travel had been suspended. The height of efficiency amidst corona chaos!
On March 22, 2020, India’s lifeline of passenger trains ceased to operate for the first time in its 167 year history in attempt to combat COVID-19. While freight trains continued to run, the 13,500 trains that carry over 23 million passengers daily, the equivalent to moving the entire population of Australia, would cease to offer passenger service for the next 51 days. Think of that the next time you hear someone say the virus is just another flu, or “a hoax cooked up by the Democrats.”