DARJEELING'S "TOY" TRAIN
The morning air is cool and the mist curling around the mountains reminds me of Vancouver. But I am half a world away, amidst the Himalayan slopes of Darjeeling, India. Anticipation surges through me as, collar turned up against the chill, I scramble downhill along a labyrinthine pathway, and emerge at Darjeeling's railway station.
And there it is! The Darjeeling Hill Railway's exquisite little ‘toy train'—one of the last surviving coal-fired steam locomotives on authentic "working" duty in India—if not in the world. It is a vintage Glaswegian locomotive, built somewhere between 1895 and 1925 and would normally be relegated to a museum—except for the loving care lavished on it by technicians in the railway workshops at Tindharia.
The Lilliputian engine and its carriages are painted bright blue and over the next four hours, it will carry me to Kurseong—located between the two terminal stations of Darjeeling and Siliguri.
A hoarse, wheezy hoot from the engine, a furious hiss of steam, and the train jolts into life. Vehicular traffic halts abruptly as we take to the road—literally. The 2 ft wide track runs down the centre of the street and takes precedence over all else. I lean out of the window, listening to the chuff-chuff-choo-choo rhythm that takes me back to childhood and a more leisurely paced world. And, unhurried it certainly is: a passenger left behind at Darjeeling station, casually lopes alongside the train, leaps onto the footboard and disappears into a compartment.
The Darjeeling Hill Railway when it was constructed in 1881 was a feat of engineering unmatched, even today, by any other mountain railway in India. It climbs 7,200 feet from the originating station of Siliguri on the plains, to the highest point at Ghum and then descends to Darjeeling at 6,800 feet. Because it doesn't operate on a rack and pinion system, the track zig-zags, curves, loops and switchbacks its way uphill over a distance of roughly 88 km. Not surprisingly, the entire trip takes nine hours!
The first lap of our journey is a stiff challenge for the little train: Ghum, a mere eight kilometres away, is 400 feet higher than Darjeeling. The engine huffs, exhaling clouds of steam and showering coal dust cinders through the windows. The wheel piston rods churn like masticating jaws as the train labours its way up the steady, continuous ascent.
At Ghum, the train pauses to refill the boiler, and passengers dismount to stretch their legs. This is the oft-photographed Batasia Loop where the track makes a complete circle, in order to cope with a steep incline in the terrain. A war memorial monument stands at the centre of the Loop, surrounded by lawns and flowerbeds. I sip a cup of chai, and listen to the sound of temple bells wafting across the valley from the nearby Ghum monastery.
Heading on down to Kurseong, tea plantations, their bushes like rows of green pom-poms, shawl the hillsides—and wooden houses with tin roofs, perched on timber pilings, cling to the side of the road. Streamers of prayer flags flutter gaily in the breeze and pansies, phlox and wild roses planted in rusty cans, bloom on windowsills.
About fifteen miles before Kurseong, we clatter through the main street of Sonada, a bustling little market town. Sitting at the train window is like having front row seats at the theatre...except that all the action is part of real life. Tibetan women wearing brightly striped aprons and hand-knitted cardigans haggle at fruit stalls heaped with pyramids of oranges, pineapples and papayas. A ‘giggle' of schoolgirls in green pinafores pose shyly for my video camera. A Nepalese villager lifts his baby son up to wave at us. A little further on, an old man carrying a load of wood on his back, steps unhurriedly off the track as the engine rounds a curve and shrieks hysterically at him. The train passes so close to some buildings, that I can see the rings on the fingers of a housewife as she stands by her kitchen window, stirring a pot of curried lentils. It smells wonderful too!
I am rueful when the trip comes to an end at Kurseong. I've had a magical four hours, and they have gone by all too quickly. I ride a taxi back to Darjeeling—a mere hour's drive away. Quick. Convenient. But not half as much fun.
IF YOU GO:
Air: Bagdogra airport is 12 km from Siliguri and is serviced by flights from Calcutta, Mumbai and Delhi.
Rail: New Jalpaiguri is about 5 km from Siliguri and is the mainline railhead which connects to all major Indian cities.
Road: There is no lack of taxis plying up to Darjeeling from either Bagdogra airport or New Jalpaiguri station.
Buses to Darjeeling are an inexpensive means of transport, but be prepared to deal with erratic time tables.
Toy Train: Service depends on weather conditions, and is suspended completely during the monsoon months of July-September. Travellers should check the exact timing at the railway station as this may vary.
Where to Stay:
Darjeeling offers a wealth of hotels, ranging from budget to luxury. Click on Trip Advisor's evaluations: http://www.tripadvisor.ca/Hotels-g304557-Darjeeling_West_Bengal-Hotels.html
PHOTOS: As attributed below.
1. Darjeeling toy train passes by a fruit stall en route to Siliguri Photo: Arne Huckelheim, Wikipedia Creative Commons.
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