Last Train to Darjeeling

Steaming Through the Eastern Himalayas

The last train to Darjeeling is scheduled to leave New Jalpaiguri railway station at nine every morning. It takes more than an hour to prepare the aging, century-old steam engine for its journey. If you reach the station early, you will find the fireman shoveling coal into the firebox to build up a head of steam while the engine driver turns the shiny brass valves.

As the station master rings the platform bell, the Darjeeling Passenger 1 Dn hauled by one of the few remaining steam engines in India pulls away with an asthmatic whistle, clouds of steam and a shower of coal cinders. The first train of the day, the Darjeeling Passenger 3 Dn, has left at 7:15.

The train connects villages spread along the mountain slopes and provides the cheapest means of moving locally grown produce from the villages to the bigger towns of Darjeeling and Siliguri. Plans to change the two feet wide railway gauge—possibly the narrowest in the world—to a wider track have been scrapped time and again due to the enormous cost of cutting the steep slopes.

I stand near the open door with my feet carefully planted between baskets of fresh spinach and sacks of cabbages hoping to catch both the breeze and the view. It's 110 kms (68 miles) from the steamy plains of north Bengal to Darjeeling, 7,000 feet up in the eastern Himalayas. And it takes all of nine hours to reach Darjeeling at a speed not much faster than walking.

As the age of steam locomotives comes to a close in India, the Darjeeling Hill Railways's fan club grows bigger by the day, with active chapters as far away as Wales, the US and Canada. The small town of Tindharia (Three Streams), not far from Jalpaiguri, is home to the almost pre-industrial workshop where the Darjeeling trains—with names like Mountaineer, Green Hills and Meghdoot—are repaired. All were built between 1892 and 1925 in some long forgotten Glasgow factory. The 'technicians', in grimy overalls, know this coal-dust layered shop in which they work could easily be a living museum. This place, more akin to an 1890s engine workshop than to a modern operation, is fascinating, and you could easily spend a day here immersed in steam train nostalgia.

Darjeeling and the dozens of villages that dot the fertile slopes around it did not exist 165 years ago. By skullduggery and political maneuver, an official of the East India Company acquired the Darjeeling hill from the Chogyal of Sikkim in 1835.

By the middle of this century, the town had begun to dominate the middle class Bengali psyche. For residents of Calcutta, a trip to the Himalayan destination conjured up images of adventure and romance, amidst mist-shrouded pine and fir forests. Legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray's classic Kanchenjunga evokes precisely this fantasy. Visiting Darjeeling—built by the British sahibs in the image of some distant Scottish village—probably somehow narrowed the gap between 'them' and 'us' for the Bengali babu.

To return to our journey, the three bright blue carriages attached to the aging Mountaineer overflow with eager Bengali tourists. As we sway and wheeze past Tindharia and Sevoke, the flat rice paddy gives way to the first tea plantations. At this low altitude, I am told that only the strong Assam tea varieties grow. The train passes within feet of the houses that line the tracks. I wince as I see young children on the train stick their arms out and playfully touch residents as they go about their chores.

Unlike in most parts of India, the mainly Nepali speaking people, who inhabit the lower and middle slopes, have a strong tradition of growing (and using) flowers. Each of the tiny, tin-roofed dwellings, that precariously sit between the railway track and steep slopes, have neat rows of old Dalda oil, Amul milk powder and Nestle baby cereal dabbas—or containers—carefully planted with brightly colored marigolds, chrysanthemums and nasturtiums.

Plump babies, with neatly slicked back hair, loll in the morning sun. Groups of carefully scrubbed and groomed school children wave to us as we rattle past. Village women with crisply ironed, brilliantly colored saris walk in groups to the vegetable haats (markets). There is a spirit of optimism, briskness and self worth.

The thickly forested lower slopes with their towering hardwood trees gives way to the first plantations of the famous Darjeeling tea as we near Kurseong, exactly half way along the journey to Darjeeling. The engine is detached from the carriages. As it is piled with fresh supplies of coal and water, the passengers invade the shops on either side for sugary tea, samosas and biscuits.

It is noticeably cooler and less humid; we have, after all, climbed about 4,500 feet from the plains. The tourists from Bengal immediately don enough woollen jackets, caps, socks and gloves to make me wonder if we are about to enter the Darjeeling branch of the Siberian Arctic.

Evenings come early in the eastern parts of the country and it is twilight by the time we reach Darjeeling. The last 12 kms (7.5 miles) of the rail line runs beside a road, virtually a race track, packed with drivers of 1950s vintage, British-built Land Rovers, the Calcutta-built Ambassador cars and nippy Maruti vans all trying to push each other off the tarmac and into the path of the steadily advancing train.

It is obvious that lightning quick reflexes is the key to survival here. The drivers who are a fraction slow in getting out of harm's way have long been eliminated—either mangled into scrap metal by the train or else pushed over the edge of the road.

Darjeeling town is spread along a ridge and on a clear day, the snowy massif of the 28,400 feet high Kanchenjunga and its equally impressive 24,000 feet neighbors loom in the distance. The land falls away steeply on either side, planted a century or more ago with mainly tea bushes. The graceful conical Cryptomeria japonica tree, a native of Japan, was introduced in Darjeeling in the last century and is now the dominant species that typifies the Darjeeling skyline.

The Lower Bazaar is where the locals shop—a maze of crowded narrow lanes lined with cubbyhole shops. There are steep alleys lined with shops that only sell steel and copper utensils and winding lanes lined with shops full of large sacks of bright colored spices and lentils. Fruit and vegetable stalls—selling the best Assamese pineapples, Sikkimese oranges and crisp fresh vegetables from nearby kitchen gardens—occupy another section of the market.

Most tourists do not venture this far. They limit themselves to the 'Mall', a common feature of all Indian hill resorts, where the photography and woolen clothing stores are located. The road leading to the Chowrasta—the town center of Darjeeling that straddles the ridge—is lined with pavement stalls owned by very persuasive Tibetan ladies selling the very latest in brand name clothing, footwear and electronics. Most things say 'Made in Japan', but are likely to have come from a few miles down the road.

The Oxford Book Shop in Chowrasta, however, is one of the best bookstores that I have come across with shelves packed with rare out of print books on the early Himalayan explorations of the area.

I am woken up at 4 a.m. the following morning by the hotel night watchman. Groggy-eyed, I put on a layer of woolens and throw on a cap and gloves before stepping out into the freezing darkness. I squeeze myself into the back of an already full vehicle that could have once been a Land Rover and we bounce our way, in the usual mad style, towards Tiger Hill.

The sky is turning pale by the time we cover the 14 kms (8.6 miles) and start steeply climbing the last few bends to the windy 'view point' where I join a few hundred keen tourists shuffling in the bitter cold, all waiting for the sun to light up Kanchenjunga. It is a grand and spectacular view every bit worth the discomfort of the cold and the effort of the early rise. Someone points out the distant black pyramid of Everest and there is a chorus of excited and admiring "Oohs".

I hire a jeep to Sandakphu—a three hour drive away and 12,100 feet up on a ridge—from where, I am told, there are even better views of Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kanchenjunga. The Singalila Ridge runs straight south from Kanchenjunga and forms the natural border between India and Nepal.

The drive is memorable. The rhododendrons are in bloom in May and entire slopes are colored deep pink and red, broken by the cream and white of the magnolia flowers. The 'road'—actually a stone cobbled pony trail now in a state of serious disrepair—is so steep in sections that our driver needs all the available low gears of his aging four wheel drive jeep to coax it up the last few bends.

I share a large 'trekkers hut' built by the local tourism department with a group of university students from Calcutta trekking in the area. They are keen, but not well equipped for the cold and the altitude. They ask the hut caretaker to light up the wood stove but I object to the unnecessary burning of wood , when I see the man bringing in a pile of firewood likely cut from the nearby slopes.

The trekkers are cold and not pleased with me and we have a bit of an argument about the impact of deforestation. The following morning I see another visiting family, parents and children clearly educated in expensive city schools, carelessly tossing their biscuit wrappers and potato chip bags beside the trail. Somehow, the message that we need to protect and cherish these few remaining pockets of wilderness in India is not getting across.

The first rays of the rising sun strike Kanchenjunga soon after five the next morning. The mountain appears painted in brilliant gold. On a clear day, the views of Kanchenjunga from the ridge above the Sandakphu hut are both impressive and remarkable. The 28,400 feet high mountain lies only 40 kms (25 miles) away and its enormous white bulk fills the western horizon. It is definitely worth the cold night spent in the hut with grumbling room mates.

I return to Darjeeling the next day, and look forward to my three hour drive to Kalimpong. This market town was once busy with traders from the neighboring kingdoms of Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Sikkim and the state of Bengal. Kalimpong prospered until the early 1960s when the India-China war sealed the borders and ended the valuable cross-border trade. Kalimpong has since rediscovered itself as the plant and orchid nursery capital of India!

It has been an enjoyable tour. Friendly people, tropical valleys, cultivated green hills and towering snow peaks sums up a little of what I have seen. Mirik and Gangtok and the sights of Sikkim await another visit to this fascinating part of India.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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