The Himalayan Queen. Photo Tom Corban

We traveled north out of Delhi towards Shimla on the early morning Shatabdi Express. As we were served breakfast the dust and dirt of the city turned surprisingly quickly to farmland. As the women took in the crops and stacked dung to dry ready for the rainy season I could see high rise blocks in the distance. Every so often there was huge modern construction. I had no idea what these new buildings would become but by their size alone you could see that they would be significant. It reminded me of driving along a huge dual carriageway in the UK. It was In the early 1970’s The road was brand new and every 100 meters or so there was the start of an exit road off to the left. These exit roads ended within 25 meters. The landscape was all clay and mud interspersed with huge piles of clay. There were no road signs and no road markings, no buildings, no grass or trees and no sign of any other cars or people. It was most eerie, and to make it even more surreal “Welcome to the Machine” was playing on the stereo. We came on a set of temporary traffic lights, the sort powered by a small generator. The lights were red. It felt ludicrous to stop, but they were red and I was brought up in the UK. Surrounded by all this nothingness I stopped. As David Gilmore sang the line “So welcome to the machine” and the big heavy bass kicked in, a massive earth mover came into sight on the top of the mud hill on my left, continued down the hill, across the road and up the mud hill on the right, disappearing as suddenly as it had appeared. It was huge with wheels taller than two people. The lights turned green and I moved off again feeling small, insignificant and part of something that I did not understand. The song continued, “What did you dream, it’s alright we told you what to dream”. Later I found out that it was the beginning of the road system that would become the new city of Milton Keynes.
This bit of India seems just like that, something huge is happening but you can’t see the shape of it yet. The landscape looks like it is growing factories,high rise blocks, huge distribution depots and what looks like new towns. A new India is being built on top of the old one. I don’t know where the poor spreading from the Delhi slums along the roads, onto the roundabouts, the parks and into any available open space will fit in. Like England the gap between the wealthy and the poor is getting greater and around all this new build there seems little hope for the poor.  As I write this we have just had a second meal served to us within the space of an hour and a half. I feel slightly embarrassed as we eat our way towards Shimla.


The Cab of the Himalayan Queen. Photo Tom Corban.

By the time we transferred to the narrow gauge railway at Kalka there was a tangible excitement in the air as tourists and Indian families scrambled aboard. The driver let me into the cab to see the controls as they do for small boys everywhere. I asked if I could drive but, as he looked a little alarmed, I did not push the point. The organised European trips went in their own carriage but as this was a free range trip for us we found ourselves the only non Indians in our carriage. It was noisy, crowded and greate fun as we set out and began to gain height. In days of Empire officers and wives went up by horse and carriage. The train was for the baggage. perhaps it still is. Within an hour we had climbed more than the height of Ben Nevis ( the highest mountain in the UK). The journey lasted over 5 hours and the scenery was stunning all the way.


The landscape as we approached Shimla. Photo Tom Corban.