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Trip from Shimla became a learning experience

Last updated on: December 5, 2011 13:25 IST

Trip from Shimla became a learning experience

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Geetanjali Krishna in New Delhi

If there's one thing I've often prayed for, it's for the good lord to deliver me from garrulous drivers.

But instead of deliverance, I found myself stuck in a traffic jam en route from Shimla to Kalka on the backseat of a car driven by Surinder Singh, a star among the breed of verbose drivers.

As we lurched along accompanied by impatiently honking horns and the omnipresent exhaust fumes, he spoke non-stop for three hours about how Shimla's traffic conditions had deteriorated in the last few decades.

We, his captive audience had no option but to listen. But later, in the merciful silence of the night train from Kalka, I lay on my berth and pondered what he'd said.

He'd been, I realised, quite right.

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Image: A 103-year-old steam engine runs on the 105-year-old Shimla-Kalka railway track.
Photographs: Reuters
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Trip from Shimla became a learning experience

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It was on the Cart Road, the one road where motor cars have been allowed ever since Shimla was founded, that our driver commenced his tirade.

"I still remember a time when there were hardly any cars in Shimla... The nearest taxi stand, believe you me, was in Kalka, 96 km away," he said.

Thirty years ago, when he began driving a taxi in Kalka, he'd count his blessings if he drove people to Shimla and back two times a week.

Those days, he said, most people there didn't own cars and most of the town was closed to vehicular traffic.

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Image: A partial belt of the runway of Jubbarhatti airport is seen in Shimla.
Photographs: Reuters
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Trip from Shimla became a learning experience

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"Everyone used to walk, or at best, hire a rickshaw..." he said, "today, the rickshaws have been long banned and there are almost as many cars as men in Shimla."

The biggest change in the last decade, he said, has been in people's attitudes to walking.

"Earlier, they walked to get from Point A to Point B. Today, they only walk for exercise...if at all," he said.

No wonder, then, that the town once known to be the walking capital of the country today has special Walkathons to raise awareness about the health benefits of walking.

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Image: Tourists visit an area covered in snowfall in Narkanda.
Photographs: Reuters
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Trip from Shimla became a learning experience

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"And to top it all, the government has opened up many more roads to cars here," Singh said, "now there are traffic jams even on the way to Taradevi and Jakhu temples."

He pointed out that not very long ago, there was only one petrol pump in Shimla and three more on the road to Kalka. Today, one can refuel every 10 km on the road.

"While the government is building multi-level parking sites and is widening the Shimla-Kalka highway, these remedies come with their own set of problems," Singh said.

As we neared Parwanoo and Solan, he pointed out places where the road was being widened.

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Image: Snow covered fields and houses near Kufri.
Photographs: Reuters
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Trip from Shimla became a learning experience

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"This has weakened the hills. Now every time it rains heavily here, landslides cripple traffic for hours, sometimes days," he said.

As we inched ahead on the clogged road, he pointed out landslide site after site, much to our agitation.

"Once, a huge boulder fell just inches away from my car right here," said he, stopping on the highway, "any closer and I won't have been standing here talking to you all today."

Consequently, taxi drivers are often unable to make the return trip from Kalka and Shimla in one day.

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Image: A commuter takes shelter under an umbrella during a heavy snowfall in Shimla.
Photographs: Reuters
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"Some of us Kalka drivers jointly rent a cheap room in Shimla during the peak summer season so that we have a place to sleep whenever necessary," he said.

Was there a solution to Shimla's traffic woes, I asked when we finally reached Kalka.

He glanced at the crush of taxis behind us at the railway station and said: "Educated people like you should figure out how to resolve these traffic issues - without putting poor old taxi drivers like me out of business."


Image: A Langur monkey runs across a road in Shimla.
Photographs: Reuters
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