After a week experiencing the sights and sounds of steamy Kolkata a trip up to the airy Himalayan hill station of
We could have flown or driven there, but why do things the easy way when we had the might of the Indian railway at our disposal? I’m not talking about just any old railway – I'm talking about the Darjeeling HimalayanRailway or, as it's affectionately known, the Toy Train – a World Heritage, narrow gauge track that crawls up impossibly steep slopes to a height of 7,218 feet for nine long hours.
For anyone who wants an unforgettable experience, unparalleled views and a numb backside, the Toy Train is the only way to travel. For a start, it's the most outstanding example of a hill station railway. First opened in 1881 to bring tea, cereals and coal down from the
the railway is an incredible feat of engineering made up of a series of loops
and reverses which propel the engine up the mountain at gradients of 1 to 20. Rumbling
over 554 bridges, the winding track crosses the road 126 times with spectacular
changes in scenery, perilous bends and exotic views, all the way up to the Himalayas.
The story of the railway goes back to 1879 when the journey from the plains of Siliguri to
took three days via a precipitous Darjeeling Cart
Road. Franklin Prestage, the official of the
Darjeeling Tramway Company who had the task of finding a way to get the engine
up the mountain, was almost on the verge of giving up when his wife gave him some
advice: “If you can't go forward, why don't you go back?” This inspired him to create
six reverses along the 87.48km route where the train zig-zags backwards before
continuing in a parallel fashion at a higher level, thus providing a solution
for railway engineers all over the world (as well as proving that the lady
always knows best).
We caught the overnight Darjeeling Mail, to arrive in the sprawling town of
as the diesel Toy Train chugged into New Jalpaiguri station for its daily
journey. We had been advised to book at least two days in advance – wisely -
for despite the train's diminutive appearance, there was nothing small about
the number of people crammed into its every orifice. Like the Earl of
Ronaldshay who made the journey in 1920, I began to “receive the whimsical
idea” that I had “accidentally stumbled into Lilliput.” Think along the lines
of Hornby. Lack of space posed less of a problem for locals who seemed to be of
a smaller stature but for the rest of us, knees knocking together on wooden
facing benches, the seating arrangements offered an unparalleled intimacy
beyond the yen of the rumpled traveller so early in the morning. But after all ...
what could we expect for a £3 trip of a lifetime? We were cheered to discover
that we could order dinner from the station which comprised a rather liquid
curry with rice and chappatis. This, although very welcome, was rather cold by
With our noses pressed against the windows and heads sometimes lolling out of them at risk of decapitation and horn blaring, the train began its meandering journey from the outskirts of Siliguri. Houses, iron huts and shops festooned with faded packets of crisps warming in the sun, passed within touching distance, as in a series of vignettes, we peered in on people's lives as they washed, shaved, had their hair cut, hung clothes out, waved at the train or even chased after the train. This was done with an inordinate amount of excitement considering it passed every day. However, with maximum speeds of 13km an hour, itwasn't very difficult to catch it up.
After leaving the plains of Siliguri at Sukna station, the landscape began to change with an ascent through forests of teak and giant bamboo, dotted with fuchsias and orchids as we trundled past tea gardens and signs that told us (as if we wouldn’t notice them) to watch out for elephants. From Chunbhati we travelled to Rangtong, location of the first and longest reverse, where the steepest climb of the journey pushed us up to Tindharia. In the old days, passengers would stop for tea here for the spectacular views with glimpses of the foothills of the H
it holds the workshops of the railway and locomotive sheds.
Many Europeans perished of jungle fever in the past and Tindharia also marked the point that was considered to be above the Terai Fever level. Leaving the station, we encountered Agony Point, the fourth loop with a minimum radius of 59 feet, where the train almost hangs over the hillside and then travelled up to Gayabari and the last reverse, to Mahanuddy 4,120 feet above sea level. Mad Torrent marks the half way point; a stream that can turn into a deluge during the rainy period. In July 1890 almost 800 ft of the road and line were washed away here. Near Mahanuddy station is a waterfall with a drop of 150 feet as the train then plods on towards Kurseong station passing jagged rocks and glorious views of the plains.
Our journey was enlivened by locals, schoolchildren and hawkers who hopped on and off the train for a free ride. Even more welcome invaders were the enterprising vendors who boarded with tiffin dishes full of steaming dumplings, brandishing huge kettles of sweet tea and coffee. The majority of paying passengers were Indian tourists. From time to time, a desultory sing song would start up but mostly, people chatted happily or attempted to sleep in contorted positions, resting on the shoulders or backs of friends and strangers.
Conversation was inevitable and as we were the only westerners on the train we were the object of some curiosity. We chatted to Aruna, a frank young girl travelling to visit relatives in a nearby village who had been married a month to a husband in
“Marriage is very horrible,” she confided cheerfully, “Arranged marriage is bad;
love marriage is good. I don't like my husband - my life is so boring.” An
elderly Nepalese man opposite was so fascinated by the maps in our Lonely
Planet Guidebook that he nursed it lovingly until we got to Nepal when it took some persuasion to get it back. Darjeeling
and Bhutan, the indigenous
is made up of a mix of cultures and as we climbed higher there was a marked
change in people's appearance to the striking, high cheek-boned features of
Nepali and Tibetan origins. Clothes also changed,due to the colder climate
with more functional wraps and cardigans worn over saris and traditional
Tibetan woolly hats providing much needed warmth as the air became chillier. Darjeeling
Seven hours into the journey and the end was in sight. From the thriving
runs right through a bazaar. Stallholders had to whisk their wares off the
tracks to let the train through as it travelled through Sonada towards Goom,
the summit of the line and the highest station in village
of Kurseong . Nearing India , surroundings became more
prosperous in contrast to the poverty we had left behind in Siliguri. Houses
looked almost Alpine or resembled faded Victorian mansions, a legacy from
colonial days. Catholic churches and schools alternated with lines of Tibetan
prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. Children boarded the train wearing smart
uniforms complete with blazers, reminiscent of the old British Grammar schools.
Posters proclaimed support for a Gorkha homeland - in the 1980s, the region was
a stronghold of the Gorkhaland National Front separatist movement who used to
target the DHR as a symbol of central government with many riots, protests and
even assassinations taking place. Darjeeling
At the famous Batasia Loop, the train worked its way round a switchback track created in 1919 to lower the gradient. We extricated our aching limbs to view the war memorial to Gorkha soldiers who died in the war of Indian Independence with its stunning backdrop of the Himalayas including the world's third highest mountain, Mt Khangchendzonga, before re-folding ourselves back in to the train for its descent into Darjeeling and a welcome cup of tea.
The railway is currently running a limited service because of landslip so please look at www.dhrs.org for latest info.