Friday, August 24, 2007

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

In the morning, with about 5 minutes to arrival at New Jaigapuri (09:00), the elderly Indian couple wake us up. We pack up and get off with everyone else.

Where to go now? We have an hour till our next train. I ask a few of the troops idling about the place, but none of them seem to have any idea. Darjeeling? Where’s that? Eventually we work it out ourselves, as the Darjeeling train, aka “The Toy Train” runs from the signed “Narrow Gauge Platform”, and it’s a reasonable guess that a toy train will be small. There are a few people about on the platform, some sitting, some lying on the benches. No foreigners.

I go looking for breakfast, and find it in the form of dosas from a café near the station entrance.

They bag up the sauce for me, though it probably would have been better not to have it to save me the mess. Thuzar hardly eats any of hers, so when a beggar comes along pointing at the mouth and stomach and holding out her hand I offer her the food. She refuses it, wants money. What a surprise. You don’t want food? Fine. We’ll I’m damned if you’re having any money. I leave the food on the bench.

Finally the train arrives, and it is small and cute.

Apparently the train, the British-built (and now World Heritage listed) Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, made its first journey in September 1881 and is still one of the few hill railways operating today in India. Thank goodness we’re in First, sandwiched between the two standard class carriages. We have reclining material seats, whereas standard have cramped plastic seats.

The American girl who has turned up only has a second class ticket, but comes to our carriage with the intention of upgrading – when she bought the ticket they hadn’t given her the option of first! The rest of the passengers are Indian couples on holiday, though second class is mostly Nepali.

We start off at 9am. The scheduled arrival time is 4:30pm (though I’d forgotten this and was expecting us to arrive at 3pm!). LP describes the ride as an exhausting haul. The carriage is hot, as it’s not air-conditioned and it’s a few hours before we start to climb, we’re still firmly in the plains. A friendly Swiss couple get on at Siliguri station – they had tried and failed to buy a ticket at the station – the master telling them to buy it on the train. On the train the conductor initially tried to charge them 400 rupees each, but I intervened by showing them our ticket, which cost 520 rupees for the both. Apparently second class was about 30 rupees!

A bicycle takes us on.. and wins!

The configuration is one seat on one side and two on the other. In theory we’re split across the aisle, but we’ve moved to a two-seat, something the conductor doesn’t seem to mind. The American girl, Darcy, on the other hand, is sitting on one of the two seats in her row, and is moved because apparently these are only for couples! She is put at the front next to a window which won’t open, and finds this so stuffy and uncomfortable that she goes back to second class, where the people are apparently more friendly.

Finally, the hills

The air cools as soon as we start climbing into the hills, though it’s still fairly warm. At every station people buzz about on the platform, and usually someone runs along with a large pot of ultra-sweet tea and plastic cups.

Still a few sweets left from Calcutta

There is only one train a day in each direction, so it still seems to be an event as the train chugs through, whistling frequently.

Two trains, one track, c’mon!

Children and adults alike wave and smile as we amble past, often returning back almost the same way on one of the frequent switchbacks.

The sinister binocular man appeared at more than one station

The 2-feet-wide track is interesting in that it is built on the road running to Darjeeling. However as the road twists and turns, the railway can only just cope with the sharp bends, so swerves back and forth across the tarmac, stopping traffic as it does so. Thank goodness the road is not too busy! The flipside is that the track is constantly being driven on by a variety of vehicles, some fairly heavy trucks, which must necessitate frequent repairs to the rails. At one of the stations an engineer starts bashing the underside of the train with a hammer. The electricity to the carriages is provided by a couple of wires twisted together as one would join bell wire – these need reconnecting occasionally too!

Clouds frequently deprive us of any view

Tea country


At last!

Finally we arrive at Darjeeling, at an altitude of 2134m, and it’s a wonderful place. It’s quite run down, especially at the end of town with the station, but sits on top of a ridge with deep valleys below on both sides, lined with a green carpet of tea estates and trees, with occasional villages interrupting. We walk into town, fending off a couple of hotel touts easily. There seem to be lots of people just dithering about on the streets, and hardly any shops open.

We later learn that there is a general strike on in Communist-dominated West Bengal State today, hence everything being shut. According to LP, it’s about a 12km walk to the hotel, which is just plain wrong – the scale is clearly out, but it is a brisk twenty minutes up some fairly steep hills. Thuzar is not best pleased.

It would also seem that there is a local candidate who has progressed quite far in the Indian Pop Idol television contest – there are lots of posters about town drumming up support for the chap.

Our first stop is Hotel Bellevue looking for a room. Second choice is Classic Guest House, but we don’t need it, as Bellevue has space.

We are greeted by the friendly Sanrup who shows us a couple of rooms. I like the first – a large room, wood-lined, with a big metal burner in one corner, presumably for use in winter. The windows look out on to their garden, and in front of the room is a terrace overlooking the Chowrasta, the central square, and heart of the town in British days.

The Chowrasta

Upstairs there’s a lookout, a little terrace area and gompa with fantastic views in all directions.

It’s cloudy now, but supposedly we should be able to see Khangchendzhonga (the name means Big Five-Peaked Snow Fortress in Tibetan), the 3rd highest mountain in the world at 8598m. From some spots in the area Everest (8848m), Lhotse (8501m) and Makalu (8475m) also appear. Even without these it’s certainly a marvellous view. After dropping our bags in the room we sit down for tea in the lounge area in front of reception. We get a large pot of Darjeeling tea, though here it’s not really called “Darjeeling” tea – it’s more just tea – black tea.

Usually they take it with milk and sugar, but here we at least get the option. The American girl, Darcy, from the train turns up too – Andy’s, where she went, turned out to be closed for renovation.

As we’re enjoying this, we here people singing outside. Looking out through the window, we watch a beautiful procession of firstly schoolchildren, then adults, monks, and even tourists, each one carrying a candle. At the front some people carry a large poster of the current (14th) Dalai Lama, His Holyness Tenzin Gyatso. Apart from the tourists, everyone is singing some sort of song, with no musical backing. It’s clearly some sort of peace procession, and people march slowly past for a good five or ten minutes – there must be thousands of people.

What a lovely way to start our stay. We walk up to the top for the sunset, as the sky lights up over the rolling hills. Once it’s dark, we retire to our lovely wooden room with no TV, before heading out for dinner at the Park Restaurant, where we over-order, havin spicy chicken, paneer, vegetables with bean sauce, rice, breads and various bits and bobs.

Back at the hotel we head up to the top for sunset.

For the first time since… Kinabalu mountain I enjoy a pleasant cool night without air-conditioning. Bliss!

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