Budapest, Hungary - The diminutive but eager uniformed person salutes as she hands us our tickets. I judge her to be about 10 years old.
My partner and I board the little red train, assisted by a pint-sized conductor. The whistle blows. A mini signalman raises the green frying-pan- shaped signal for "go," and we're off.
Have we accidentally dropped into a world of Lilliputians?
No, we are embarking on a day trip away from the hustle and bustle of Budapest's metropolitan centre through the forested Buda Hills to the west of the not-so-blue Danube on the narrow-gauge rail line known as the Children's Railway.
Built by communist-era youth brigades between 1948 and 1951, the Children's Railway snakes for 11 kilometres across the woods and fields of the hills.
Chugging through stands of oak, ash, beech and thick undergrowth, the little train passed a welter of wildlife including birds, deer, squirrels and hedgehogs. At times we even catch a glimpse of a fox or wild boar.
The train makes several stops along the way where passengers with knapsacks and walking sticks descend to hike one of the many trails.
The tiny railway has sometimes been called the greatest children's toy in the world. With the exception of the driver, most train workers - conductors, switch persons, telegraph operators and traffic managers - are 10-to-14-year-old children. They operate under the supervision of adult station masters and train drivers.
To become rail workers, children have to achieve good grades in school and successfully complete the children's railway course. They also belong to a union whose members not only work together but also participate in leisure programs directed by youth leaders.
Originally called the Pioneer Railway, the purpose of the line was to carry young passengers to a children's camp known as Pioneer Town, intended to be a large, independent community of children. Protecting the natural environment and centuries-old trees of the Buda Hills was one of its aims. For over half a century, city residents of all ages could enjoy the panoramic views of Budapest and the surrounding hills through the train windows.
Today the well-maintained railway is still a favourite of hikers and day-trippers for outings into the lush Buda Hills. The old steam engines are gone now, replaced by modern diesel. Wooden benches have turned into moulded plastic seats. But the old ambience remains, along with the young staff's enthusiasm and the passengers' excitement. And sometimes, on special occasions like the annual Children's Day Celebration, the original wooden train cars are pressed into service again for nostalgia's sake.
In 1990, adjusting to a changed political reality, the Pioneer Railway's name was changed to the Children's Railway, the children's red Pioneer neckties were changed to blue, and the communist red star was removed from the front of the engines.
The journey ends at Janos Hill, the highest point in the Buda range at 529 metres. A short walk along a wooded path takes us to an observation tower overlooking the largest unbroken forest area of the Buda Hills. From the top of the tower we can see valleys and hills as well as the entire cosmopolitan heart of Budapest spread below us about 8 kilometres away.
At day's end we make our descent by chairlift down to the city, catching more beautiful views of the Queen of the Danube below.