The slowest trip through India in the description of Kostyantyn Kryvopust

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No one uses the Nilgiri Mountain Railway to get from point A to point B, but only for the pleasure of riding a train that passes through 16 tunnels, 250 bridges and 208 serpentines.

Bollywood movie Hello, may have received a lukewarm response at the Indian box office, but one of the songs from the film remains a favorite tune 25 years later. Chaiyya Chaiyya memorable not only for its catchy tune, but also for the fact that it was filmed entirely on top of a moving train. Indian heartthrob Shahrukh Khan prancing with a troupe of backup dancers as the train sped slowly through green rolling countryside, past tea plantations and towering viaducts, steam billowing from its old-fashioned engine.

I too traveled by this same train, although my journey was much more comfortable and less dangerous than Khan’s. Nilgiri Mountain Railway ( Nilgiri translates as “blue mountain” after the blue hue the sun casts on the hills), which the locals call NMR or more affectionately “toy train”, is a great example of the destination travel cliché.

Through the state of Tamil Nadu the train is the slowest in India due to an extremely steep slope on the route. It takes almost five hours to cover a distance of 46 km from the town of Mettupalayam in the foothills of the Nilgiris to the mountain town of Udgagamandalam – changed to Uthakamund in British languages ​​and then shortened to Ooty by Indians. The return trip cuts an hour off, but the drive only takes a fraction of that time.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway connects Metupalayam and Ooty in the southern state of Tamil Nadu (Image copyright Raimond/Getty Images)

It’s clear that no one uses the NMR to get from A to B, but just for the pure joy of riding a train that passes through 16 tunnels, 250 bridges and 208 sharp turns in the biodiverse Western Ghats mountain range, about a World Heritage Site UNESCO .

Armed with a first class ticket that cost 600 rupees (about £6), I boarded the blue train in Ooty on a chilly morning, eager to experience this quintessential Nilgiris. (A second-class ticket costs less than half the price, but without the easy seat cushioning).

When you get on the train, it’s like entering another dimension

D Om Prakash Narayan, senior public relations officer of the Southern Railway, which runs the train, told me, “When you board the train, it’s like entering another dimension.”

I understood what he meant when I got into the tiny carriage. Families with children crowded near the box windows, waiting for the promised views of the Nilgiris. The excitement was palpable among the passengers, all in a festive mood, cheering and applauding as the train made its way through the dark tunnels.Located at an altitude of 2,240 m, Ooty was founded as a summer resort for the British Raj (Image copyright Sreekanth G/Getty Images)

Located at an altitude of 2,240 m, Ooty was founded as a summer resort for the British Raj (Image copyright Sreekanth G/Getty Images)

Ooty is one of India’s oldest hill stations – these high altitude towns were summer retreats for the British rule when they needed to escape the stifling heat of the plains – and remains popular with Indian tourists looking for a cool holiday or honeymoon. Today it is a bustling small town with remnants of colonialism hidden in the chaos of urban India. But as we left Ooty behind, reminders of the British Raj began to emerge with station names like Lovedale, Wellington, Adderley and Runnymede.

“It all feels like it hasn’t changed since British times, like time has stood still here,” said Sharanya Sitharaman, who recently traveled on the train with her family. “We could almost imagine European women in fancy hats getting off the train at these little stations.”

The remnants of the Raju are particularly visible in colonial design several old buildings in the Nilgiris: offices, bungalows (some of which are now boutique hotels) and churches. The colonial feel is so reminiscent that Coonoor station, located just an hour’s drive from Ooty, became part of the fictional town of Chandrapore in the film adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel ” Pass to India” by David Lean in 1984.

We could almost imagine European ladies in fancy hats getting off the train at these little stations

“People on this train are still seeing the same things they saw more than 100 years ago,” said retired journalist D. Radhakrishnan, who has covered events in the Nilgiris region for decades.Coonoor Station was the backdrop for David Lean's film Crossing India, based on EM Forster's novel (Image credit: Dethan Punalur/Getty Images)

Coonoor Station was the backdrop for David Lean’s film Crossing India, based on EM Forster’s novel (Image credit: Dethan Punalur/Getty Images)

Narayan, a railway veteran of over 30 years, agrees, “Ooty and Coonoor have been exploited for the development of their natural resources and you can see that when you travel on the road. But when you travel on this train, you feel as if you haven’t touched anything.”

We passed tea plantations with workers bent over the leaves and waterfalls that sprung up after the monsoons. I kept leaning out of the window to see the serpentines of the train, twisting and turning, keeping my eyes peeled for a stray gaur (Indian bison) or an elephant in the thickets. There was non-stop activity, with people getting out to stretch their legs and take photos at various stations along the way (some for passengers and others just to fill the locomotive with water). The stop at Coonoor was much longer, allowing the train to change from a diesel locomotive (which had hitherto been used for fairly flat trips) to a steam one for more power on the grades.

The soothing landscape and the gentle rocking of the train lulled me into a state of drowsiness. At one of the water stops, I refueled with hot tea and masalavada (spicy fritters) sold by local vendors are essential elements of any trip to India.

Mangalore-based journalist Subha J Rao, who grew up in the plains near Mettupalayam, has similarly serene memories of her childhood train journey. “We could get off and go with the train,” she said. “As adults, we now talk about the romance of train travel, but back then, as children, we just enjoyed the experience, even with all the soot and smoke from the steam engine.”The train offers a view of the numerous tea plantations in the vicinity (Photo: Charukesi Ramadurai)

The train offers a view of the numerous tea plantations in the vicinity (Photo: Charukesi Ramadurai)

Nilgiri Mountain Railway along with Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in West Bengal and Kalka Shimla Railway in the state of Himachal Pradesh in the north are included in of the World Heritage List UNESCO Mountain Railways of India. All of them owe their existence to the British, who built them as a means of convenient travel to cool countries during the hot summer. But Radhakrishnan was quick to point out, “They introduced railways purely for their own comfort and not for the good of the Indian people. If they could take her with them, they would.”

Whatever the intentions, creating this route in this treacherous mountainous terrain was a very difficult task. According to UNESCO, “this railway, whose height is from 326 m to 2203 m, represents the latest technology of the time.” Narayan explained that the slope in some sections, such as the section between Kallar and Coonoor, is so steep that a unique toothed rail. This means that an additional rail with sharp teeth in the middle of the tracks (rail) grips the gear (gear) on the bus to prevent slipping and sliding. It was designed by a Swiss engineering team hired by the British to design and supervise construction. This design is only found on a few other Swiss railway lines today, apart from the NMR, and is still in operation today.

Work on the railway began in 1891 and lasted 17 years, that is, it is the 115th year since the start of the train. Uti itself is preparing to celebrate a significant anniversary in 2023, as it has passed exactly 200 years ever since British official John Sullivan came across this healing village in the hills and added it to the Raj’s growing list of summer destinations. This means that NMR has been part of Ooty’s heritage for more than half of its existence.Apart from the NMR, only a few other Swiss railway lines have racks (Image copyright Undefined/Getty Images)

Apart from the NMR, only a few other Swiss railway lines have racks (Image copyright Undefined/Getty Images)

According to Radhakrishnan, there were several plans to close this rail service due to its uneconomical nature. But it is such an integral part of Ooty’s tourism sector that these plans collapse as soon as they are discussed. “Many people come here just to ride this train and it is impossible to imagine Ooty without NMR,” he said.

When we finally arrived at Mettupalayam, four calm and relaxing hours after leaving Ooty, I remembered what Rao had told me: “A journey on this train is a return to a quieter time.”

I found it to be an antidote to the stress and strife of everyday life, and when my own mind slowed down to match the speed of the train, it was just the kind of return I needed.

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