Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (2000)

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (2000)

If you think a tiny string of painted steel boxes balancing precariously on a two feet wide track meandering on the hillside is an unlikely candidate for the UNESCO World Heritage Site status, think again. It may not be as magnificient as Humayun’s Tomb or Hampi which also have the same status, but there is something endearing about the grandiloquently named Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR). It is the second railway system in the world to get the ‘heritage’ status after the Zimmerin Railway in the gorgeous Austrian Alps. DHR now rubs shoulders with VIP sites around the world such as the Grand Canyon and the Niagara Falls.

If you’re still not impressed, you certainly will be, when you travel on the quaint railway. But mind you, the journey is not for the hurried and hasseled who seek instant gratification. It is for those who believe – as they say in some airline ads – that the journey is the destination. It takes all of nine hours to traverse a distance of 51 miles from Siliguri to Darjeeling – in fact, you’d probably reach earlier if you walked alongside the track. But a journey on the DHR offers you a unique glimpse into the rich taspestry of life in Gorkhaland like no other. At just Rs 30 per trip, it’s cheaper than a song. Even Sahib class travel will set you back by just Rs 200.

Therefore, our advice is, take the train — if you have all the time in the world, that is. It offers you the Himalayas in rectangular steel frames. Rolling hills, rhododendron slopes, red-tiled cottages, little-red riding hoods on bikes – flash by frame after frame. As the toy train puffs its wheezing way up, through the hillside and right into the heart of the villages and towns that dot the route, it feels as though you’re chugging right through people’s houses, shops and lives. You could just put your hand out of the window and help yourself to a toffee from the jar on shop counters, literally feel the heat of the fires being stoked in the tea stalls, and dodge a ball flying through your window straight out of the little boy’s bat. Mercifully, every cottage window that you can reach across and touch, is curtained and the curtains properly drawn, otherwise the journey could have given you some X-rated entertainment too along the way – after all, Darjeeling is the honeymooner’s paradise.

In between communing with townsfolk, you’ll trundle through stretches of hillsides where prickly bamboo leaves will brush your face if you lean out of the window. Not to mention the tiny bits of charcoal that fly straight out of the boiler room and lodge themselves in your eyes, hair and nose. But you’ll survive all these and more and the trip is well worth the inconvenience. Where else can you get such tantalising glimpses of the Kanchenjunga in her snowy crown at every turn and bend?

And those of you on the wrong side of 40 might recall the haunting melody of Mere sapnon ki rani, kab aaye gi tu in Aradhana, the blockbuster of the seventies. The real scene stealer there was neither Rajesh Khanna with his comical antics on the jeep or the bashful Sharmila Tagore stealing furtive glances at her hero, but the quaint DHR chugging cheerfully along the route and playing cupid to the protagonists of the film.

The DHR is a constant wonder on this route – not to the tourists and visitors for whom it is a novelty, but to the residents. They stop everything they’re doing to gape at the train although it chugs along this route at least twice daily. The strident whistle, the menacing hiss of the engine, the jet-black plume of carbon smoke it spews and the horrendous traffic snarls it creates in the narrow hill roads would have driven anyone but the hardiest city dweller nuts, but not our tribe from Gorkhaland.

They look on indulgently – it is their pride and their passport to prosperity. It brings precious cargo – in the form of 5,000 tourists a day in peak season, tourists who will spend precious dollars and, more frequently, less precious rupees and rupiahs. But spend they will – and in anticipation, the hillsides have sprouted cottages and ugly multi-storeyed hotels, lodges, guest houses and tourist homes. Check out the water supply in these places before you decide to check-in. Darjeeling is notorious for water shortages.

The track and the road travel alongside each other all the way from Siliguri to Darjeeling, much like two mismatched snakes in courtship. At times they appear to be feuding when the rail track moves away from the road to play hide and seek for a while before it emerges rather coy and contrite to join its mate. They cross each other in as many as 150 spots and don’t wonder who has right of way – it has to be DHR, the Queen of the hill station. She, of course, waits regally at traffic jams even as self-appointed traffic wardens struggle to clear the way for her in those narrow bottlenecks. Patience is one virtue that should be at a terrible discount when you choose to travel to Darjeeling.

But there was a time when the DHR was considered fast – by the sahibs and memsahibs who had to trudge up the hill on their ponies. That was more than a 120 years ago. In 1879 to be precise. Franklin Prestage of The Eastern Bengal Railway Company had a dream – of building a tramway line from Siliguri to Darjeeling, the queen of the Himalayan hill stations. In those days, Darjeeling could be accessed only on ponies through a hill cart track. There was not yet any mountain railway anywhere in the country and Prestage was no engineer. Yet, he believed he could build a tramway track along the hill track alignment. It was to be a unique track – just two feet wide. He managed to convince his bosses of the feasibility of the project. The construction began on the 51- mile line in the same year. At the fourteenth mile, Prestage got stuck. The gradient was too steep. A crestfallen Prestage had almost given up, conceding defeat. It was then that his wife came up with a suggestion – why not go backward, if you can’t go forward?

Thus was born the most innovative railway system in the world – the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. The line reverses everytime it is unable to move forward because of the gradient – in the shape of ‘Z’, to make the climb at a slightly different point. At times it loops around those impossibly steep gradients – like a spiral — crossing itself at a slightly higher altitude. It maintains a constant incline of 1:20 – that is, for every 20 ft travelled, the train gains one foot elevation. At Ghoom, the second highest railway station in the world after Cusco in the Andes at 14,000 feet, the DHR reaches 7,407 ft. Prestage completed the construction of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in just two years. Since then it has been running continuously.

For decades, it had ferried tea in wooden chests from the verdant slopes of Margaret’s Hope, Makai Bari, Happy Valley and a score of other tea gardens to the shores from where they were shipped to Harrods of London and Sachs in Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that the DHR put Darjeeling on the World Tea Map long before it put it on the World Heritage Sites map. At Ghoom Station, there is a DHR museum with gorgeous sepia-tinted vintage photographs of the open railway carriage ferrying tea chests. The museum also has other priceless assorted railway memorablia. Don’t miss it.

(Published in Outlook Traveller in March 2001)

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