Finally finished! The story of Don’s exciting journey down the mountains from Darjeeling!
Darjeeling, India (April 15). It was easy for me – both emotionally and logistically. Our driver met me at 10 and I was back in our hotel room in Siliguri by 1:00.
Don took the more adventurous route, naturally. He left at 7AM to board the Darjeeling Himalayan “toy train” for its entire length from Darjeeling to Siligura. It took nine hours for the whole adventure to cover the 55-mile (88 km) journey.
I couldn’t let this unique opportunity to travel on such a famous route on such a famous heritage train pass me by. And I’m glad I did. What a great experience it turned out to be…
Although the train was not scheduled to depart until 8 AM, I decided to leave our hotel at 7 AM because I didn’t have a ticket and didn’t know what I would encounter at the train station. And rather than trying to deal with a taxi that would have to navigate through one-way twisting streets from the hotel to the train station, I decided to walk through the pedestrian-only center down the hill, a walk, I was told, that would take about 20 minutes. With few people filling the streets with selfie-sticks, the charming “bones” of Darjeeling became evident and I could see what has attracted so many people to the spot — besides the cool weather and fine tea. British building influence can be seen everywhere as can many of the businesses.
I indeed made it to the train station by 7:30 only to find out that the ticket office would not open until 8 — the time of the departure of the train. This put me into a panic. Other people who were booked for the 8 AM train had their tickets. I hadn’t made a final decision to take the train until the evening before and the internet booking service wasn’t working. But, I found the conductor just before the train was scheduled to leave and he issued me a ticket, but charged me extra for not having used the ticket office or on-line service. I shouldn’t have worried, however, because the train didn’t actually leave until 8:45 — well after the ticket office had opened. Indian travelers knew the timing of such things and didn’t even bother to show up at the station until 8, unconcerned about getting tickets in time for the eventual departure.
The delay, it seemed, involved a lot of tinkering with the antique diesel engine that would pull the cars down the “hill” — taking us from an elevation of 7,218 ft (2,200 m) to the base elevation at 328 ft (100 m). This railway was laid out and constructed in the early 1880’s to lessen the journey from the base to the top from five days to a mere eight hours. The planners knew they couldn’t use a standard train because of the cost of having to dig tunnels or build bridges, so they came up with this “toy” train with tracks a mere two feet across. This allowed for small engines and carriages to navigate around sharp turns and narrow passages. The path of the train basically follows the original Hill Cart Road that led to Darjeeling by, well, cart. The train itself crisscrosses that road — stopping traffic as it goes — to find the most level areas.
The whole thing is a marvel of engineering. And of all of the remnants of the British Raj that we’ve seen in India, I would say this one was the most astonishing. It’s astonishing mostly because it is still in use and being operated in exactly the same way as it had been 140 years ago. It is also astonishing because the fares are so low — my ticket cost $14 for the full route — and the whole operation requires a crew that had more people working to get us down the hill than there were passengers. This is a money-loser. How much longer can they provide this daily service?
The train travels so close to homes, businesses and markets that you can literally reach out and touch the buildings and people as the train passes by. And when you travel through wooded areas, branches of trees slap you in the face through the open windows. (There was even a moment when Jo and her driver were right next to me and we exchanged furious waves.)
The curiosity of this antique train was not lost on the many people who stopped to take photos as the train lumbered by.
To navigate down the incline of the mountain (and to get it up at an even slower speed) required several rail loops and “reversals” that sent the train back onto a rail of a somewhat lower elevation and then moved it forward on yet another somewhat lower track — all to avoid any steep descent. There were some half dozen of these time-consuming reversals, each of which took many people to manually switch the rails.
But perhaps the most breathtaking part of this nine-hour trip was the glorious scenery as we passed through mountainous areas down to more level terrain. Great vistas of forests and tea plantations along with glimpses of busy tea workers.
The nine hours seemed like a review of all the landscape, architecture, people, urban and rural activities we witnessed over the previous three months.
And like those three months, the last nine hours on the toy train from Darjeeling didn’t bore me for a minute.