Darjeeling “toy train”. Credit: Tourism India
By Margaret Deefholts
The morning air is cool and the mist curls around the mountains. Reminders of my home city of Vancouver, but I am half a world away, amidst the Himalayan slopes of Darjeeling in north central India. In fact, I am scrambling downhill along a labyrinthine pathway to Darjeeling’s railway station.
And there it is! The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway’s exquisite ‘toy train’. This little engine is one of the last surviving coal-fired steam locomotives on authentic working duty in India—if not in the world. It is not a tourist train, but tourists are welcome to go along for the ride. The vintage Glaswegian locomotive, built somewhere between 1895 and 1925, 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, this train will carry me to Kurseong—located between the two terminal stations of Darjeeling and Siliguri. I stand on the platform watching the engine being readied for departure: a fireman shovels coal into the tender and the driver fiddles with shiny brass valves on the instrument panel. My first class carriage with comfortably upholstered seats awaits!
Trains, cars, carts and pedestrians all jumble along the Darjeeling streets together. Credit: Margaret Deefholts
A hoarse, wheezy hoot, a furious hiss of steam, and the train jolts into life. Traffic halts abruptly as we take to the road—quite literally. The 2-foot wide track runs down the street, taking precedence over all else. I lean out of the window, listening to the chuff-chuff-choo-choo rhythm that takes me back to my own childhood in India and a world more leisurely in pace. A passenger left behind at Darjeeling station, casually lopes alongside the train, leaps onto the footboard and disappears into a compartment.
United Nations World Heritage Status
In 1999, UNESCO selected the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway system as a Cultural World Heritage Site within the Mountain Railways of India. This makes it only the second railway system in the world [after one in the Austrian Alps] to be awarded this unique recognition.
The Darjeeling Himalayan 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 Ghoom and then descends into 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 55 miles or 88 kilometers. Not surprisingly, the entire trip takes nine hours!
The first lap of our journey is a stiff challenge for the little train: Ghoom, a mere five miles away, is 400 feet higher than Darjeeling. The engine exhales clouds of steam and showers of coal dust cinders. The wheel piston rods churn like masticating jaws as the train labors its way up the steady, continuous ascent. The track winds and twists along the forested mountainside, and sunlight glints through the feathery leaves of crytomaria trees. Across a valley, I catch glimpses of Darjeeling, its buildings spilling helter-skelter down the hillside.
View from Prospect Point, Darjeeling. Credit: Margaret Deefholts
At Ghoom, the train pauses to refill the boiler, and passengers dismount to stretch their legs. Here is the oft-photographed Batasia Loop where the track makes a complete circle, in order to cope with a steep incline. A war memorial stands at the center 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 Ghoom monastery.
At 7,200 feet, passengers stretch their legs at Batasia Loop, Ghoom. Credit: Margaret Deefholts
Tea pickers near Darjeeling. Credit: Tourism India
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 line 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. I see 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. Shops selling everything from ready-made garments to spices are furiously busy. 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.
Tibetan women, Darjeeling. Credit: Margaret Deefholts
I am rueful when the trip comes to an end at Kurseong. My magical four hours have gone by all too quickly. The engine will refuel and the train will go on to Siliguri without me. Instead I ride a taxi back to Darjeeling—a mere hour’s drive away. Quick. Convenient. But not half as much fun.
Follow up Facts
By Air: Bagdogra airport is 7.5 miles or 12 km from Siliguri, serviced by flights from Calcutta, Mumbai and Delhi.
By Rail: New Jalpaiguri is about 3 miles from Siliguri and is the mainline railhead which connects to all major Indian cities.
By Road: Plenty of taxis ply 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.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway:The toy train leaves Siliguri at 9 a.m. daily and arrives in Darjeeling at 5.30 p.m. (an extra train, departing at 7 a.m. runs during the season, April-June). Trains also depart Darjeeling for Siliguri daily at 10.00 a.m. However, service depends on weather conditions, and is suspended completely during the monsoon months July to September. Check the exact timing at the railway station as this may vary.
Hotels: Darjeeling offers a wealth of hotels, ranging from budget to luxury. Good value for middle-range travellers is the newly constructed wing of the main Old Belleview Hotel centrally located on the Mall.
Official Incredible India Tourism Website, www.incredibleindia.org.
A street vendor crochets on a Darjeeling sidewalk. Credit: Margaret Deefholts
Margaret Deefholts is author of Haunting India, a collection of short stories, poems, travel tails and memoirs. As an Anglo Indian of British and Indian heritage, she grew up in India before immigrating to British Columbia, Canada with her husband and children in 1977. Her stories have a gentle wistfulness, alternating between light and shadow, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness – all reflecting the contrasts that are so much a part of India. The book expresses the joy and sorrow of being possessed by India as Margaret is even today. Fifty percent of proceeds from the sale of Haunting India go to a charity for the support of destitute seniors and children of Anglo Indian descent in India.
A professional travel writer, editor and photographer, Margaret Deefholts is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada, and President of the B.C. Association of Travel Writers. She is co-owner/editor of Travel Writers’ Tales, a syndicate which provides travel articles to newspapers. Her articles have been published in The Globe & Mail, The Georgia Straight, international in-flight magazines, travel anthologies and in several community newspapers in B.C. Extracts from her essay on Rohinton Mistry’s Mumbai have been aired on CBC Radio. Tourism Malaysia honoured her with their award as Best International Travel Writer in 2003.
Share her travels at www.margaretdeefholts-journeys.com or visit her cyber-villa at www.margaretdeefholts.com.
With Incredible Indian Tours, discover India or Nepal on your trip of a lifetime, blending cultural and heritage experiences to amaze and enthrall. We also offer specialist tours for women only or for country festivals and events. 60% of clients are over 45. www.incredibleindiatours.com