It was a cold morning when we walked out of Amritsar Airport at 5am. I put on my jumper, dropped my rucksack in the car boot and settled myself next to the taxi driver. Our taxi driver, a young sikh man in his mid twenties, drove us out of the airport towards Amritsar Railway Station. Within 20 minutes we reached Amritsar railway station which was hustling and bustling with passengers, porters and taxi drivers. The area outside the station was lined by brightly lit food stalls serving parathas and kulchas with freshly made lassi.
After paying our taxi fare, we headed inside the station to try and figure out how to get to Pathankot. For all we knew, a passenger train ran early morning from Amritsar to Pathankotand connected with the toy train which rode into the KangraValley. I, Nupur and ronak, lined up at the ticket booking counter which was surprisingly crowded this early in the morning. After a bit of haggling and jumping across queues, we managed to buy 3 tickets of the Amritsar Pathankot passenger train, which was scheduled to leave in 30minutes. With time in hand we decided to have a light breakfast and bought some food packets to eat. The train was empty, so we took one of the empty berths and stacked our luggage up in the luggage rack. Gradually the train filled up with more and more locals and soon we left from Amritsar at 6:45am. Daylight had broken through and as the train left Amritsar we could see late winter fog covering fields as far as eyes could see.
It was a 3 hour long journey and to keep ourselves busy, we started playing cards. During the journey more and more local people came down and sat in our little compartment watching curiously at these 3 backpackers who stood out amongst everyone with our rucksacks and travel attire. During this journey, each one of us took turns to catch up on our sleep and get some rest. We barely had any sleep having flown out from Mumbai at 2am.
At around 10am, our train pulled into pathankot station. We immediately jumped off the train and ran to the toy train ticket booking counter. We were previously informed that the toy train would leave at 10am and afraid that we might miss it, we ran as fast as we could to catch it. Luckily for us, the ticket vendor informed us that the toy train timetables had been revised and the train would leave an hour late at 11am. We heaved a sigh of relief, but our happiness was short-lived. We were informed that due to landslides, the tracks just before Kangra station were damaged, and the train would travel only till Jwalamukhi railway station. Till now, we were just taking it one journey at a time, and here as well we decided to wing it. We would travel till Jwalamukhi station and figure out rest of the journey once we reach there. With an hour to spare, I bought some breakfast for the 3 of us.
We walked across the station to the other side where the toy train was stationary waiting for its passengers. The train was quaint and beautiful with 5 little coaches having seats divided into 2 columns. Each column had around 6 rows and each row could sit 4 passengers. Each berth had a window which unlike other trains in India didn’t have metal rods, which made it easy to put our heads out and enjoy the view. We took one of the middle berths in a rear coach and had our breakfast of chholeand kulchas with a samosa for each of us.
The toy train chugged out of the station sharp at 11am and made its way past the outskirts of pathankot into the open fields. As the train glided along, I felt a certain sense of satisfaction and happiness to embark on this beautiful ride. Right from the beginning, we wanted to experience this tucked away gem, yet we hardly found any information online about the train. With nothing but a rough estimation of train timings and stations, we left on our journey, and here we were, sitting in the train enjoying every minute of it like a 5year old kid does. The toy train slowly left the fields behind and now meandered among the little hills and valleys which also told us that we had entered the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh. It was almost noon, but the air outside was fresh and crisp blowing onto our faces through open window. The smell of grass and forests filled our nostrils with pleasure.
Between Pathankot and Jwalamukhi there were roughly 8-10 other stations which each station almost 20 minutes away from the other one. This toy train was one of the main sources of transportation between these little villages hidden away into the mountains. These stations were very small, and for a platform, they had this small elevation on the ground. Each station had a small building situated at one end which functioned as their ticket booking counter as well as administrative office.
The tracks for this toy train were single gauge, which meant only one train could ply on the route between two stations. So whenever two trains came up against each other, one would wait at the nearest station where the tracks doubled up, till the second one comes up.
As the train moved deeper into the forest, I decided to go and stand at the door of the coach. Holding onto the support bars, I leaned out of the train and met with a blast of fresh mountain air right in my face. I could see the whole toy train in front of me negotiating a curve along the hill and the sight of it was what I would always see in pictures and movies.
Soon the forests cleared and we were treated to our first view of the mighty dhauladhar ranges of the Himalayas. Massive snow capped peaks lined the entire horizon further complimented by rich green forests at their base and beautiful blue sky on the top. Somewhere among the Dhauladhars was our destination, Dharamsala. The further this toy train went, the more pleased I seemed with myself for trying this train journey which is totally off the beaten track.
The train slowly went past stations one after another Bharmaur, Nagrota Surian, Guler and so on. At stations we would get off and observe the locals go about their routine. We weren’t hungry around lunch time but when one of the hawkers came around offering black chickpeas we couldn’t resist ourselves. A perfect snack for this amazing train journey.
At around 3pm, our train pulled into Jwalamukhi railway station which was our last stop. We got off at the station and luckily for us, the station master guided us on how to catch a bus to Dharamsala from the local village bus stop.
Kangra valley toy train is something that very few know about, yet the journey on this train is so beautiful and satisfying that it made me fall in love with it. If ever I head back to Dharamsala and I am sure I will, I would continue doing this train journey for it holds a very special place in my heart.