Without warning, our jeep judders to a halt to avoid colliding with an old man with a sack slung across his back who has been indecorously jostled off the nearby pavement. It’s mid-September, the fag end of the monsoon season, but still teeming with rain, and he struggles to hold his umbrella aloft in the crush of shoppers. The jeep lurches forward once more in a stream of traffic weaving its way through the narrow, busy streets of Darjeeling’s Chowrasta bazaar with its hole-in-the wall shops. Undeterred by the monsoon rains, the colourful market is absolutely thronged with people on the eye out for a bargain. The Hindu festival of Dussehra is just around the corner and new clothes are an essential part of the celebrations.
Through the constant downpour I spot several Victorian buildings cheek by jowl with the untidy concrete sprawl of urban India. Darjeeling is now a busy city, but was once a mere village in the eastern foothills of the Himalaya. It grew in importance during the mid-nineteenth century after the British established a hill station here to escape the stifling heat of the Ganges plains. As the Raj was governed from Calcutta which lies to the south, Darjeeling soon became the de facto summer capital of British India. First leased from the Chogyal of Sikkim, it was annexed by the British in 1849 who discovered that the climate was perfect for growing tea and Darjeeling rapidly became synonymous with this beverage.
Indeed, the hillsides and valleys surrounding Darjeeling are covered with deep green tea plantations, and we are staying in one-such valley below the city at a small ecologically friendly farm sited eight kilometres down a spine-jerking, teeth-chattering unsealed road oozing with tropical vegetation. Tathagata Farm grows and produces its own tea, a delightful amber liquor with a smoky taste.
Our driver takes us along Mall Road towards the historic Observatory Hill. We stop briefly to view the Gothic St Andrew’s Church, an Anglican place of worship built in 1871 but now somewhat faded in its majesty. Its yellow walls are streaked with green slime that contrast with its rust red galvanised roof. Close by are the Windermere and Elgin Hotels, elegant stone buildings which conjure up the grandeur and opulence of the Raj. Nearby is the Darjeeling Gymkhana Club, established in 1909, and we also catch a glimpse of the Darjeeling Municipality Building with its famous Clock Tower, the four faces of which gaze over the myriad rooftops of the city dubbed the ‘Queen of the Hills’. Darjeeling is famous for majestic views of the snow-capped mountain of Kanchenjunga which is among the highest peaks of the mighty Himalaya Range.
But it is another facet of Victorian heritage that we are making a beeline for, one which for me truly evokes the spirit of British India: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. This narrow gauge (2ft) line was built between 1879 and 1881 to transport agricultural produce, connecting the city of Siliguri in the foothills of the Himalaya, with Darjeeling. This journey of around 78 kilometres was formerly made by carriage along the now horrendously congested and dangerous Hill Cart Road.
Parts of this historic line is ingeniously built into the side of this road, sometimes crossing it, while other sections run above precipitous drops. To gain sufficient height the line was built with numerous loops and Z-reverses. Remarkably, nearly a third of the original ‘B’ Class locomotives, the majority of which were designed and built in Glasgow between 1889 and 1925 by the North British Locomotive Company, are still in use or under repair. This feat of Victorian engineering was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1999.
Due to a series of landslides and catastrophic flooding events in 2011-13, a section of the track has been badly damaged just before Kurseong, and there is currently no service from New Jalpaiguri up to this point. Kurseong to Darjeeling and the Darjeeling to Ghoom (Ghum) sections are operated by steam with other sections run on diesel. We wanted to travel on a steam train and, due to time constraints, chose the Darjeeling to Ghoom option which is dubbed ‘The Joy Ride’. We were able to book our tickets online at home in Ireland, and we now present the computer print-outs at the archaic wooden-shuttered kiosk on the platform of Darjeeling Station to confirm our journey.
Having collected our tickets for the 4 pm train, we have almost half an hour to kill before its departure, so we wander up the platform past a fast food booth with a sign advertising chai for 10 rupees where women are busy making puris, before crossing the road to the nearby engineering sheds where several of the blue engines are undergoing maintenance. No. 802 Victor and No. 804 Queen of the Hills, built in 1927 and 1928 respectively, and an earlier engine, No. 788 Tusker built in 1913, are lined up in the sidings, some of them stripped right down. There is no one around and we are free to wander along the shed with its historic hulks which emit a pungent smell of engine oil and grease.
Suddenly the air is pierced by a high pitched shriek: a whistle heralding the arrival of our steam engine into the station. Like excited children, we race across the road to greet it, joining a knot of interested bystanders and train enthusiasts, as engine No. 779 chugs majestically into the station like a snarling beast, all steam and hisses, her name - Himalayan Bird - emblazoned in brass down the side of her diminutive body. Slowing slightly as if to allow her enthralled audience to admire her, she then picks up speed and passes beyond the station, only to reappear minutes later, her engine facing towards Ghoom. This grand old lady of 122 years then comes to a graceful halt, gently hissing as she flaunts her beauty to the misty-eyed admirers flocked around her, whose cameras are busy snapping away.
The stoker begins to furiously shovel coal into the small firebox which glows greedily red and the engine driver lovingly wipes her bright work. Coal smoke, grease and oil mingle pleasantly together in a nostalgic essence and a thrill of expectation runs through me like an electric current. What is it about steam trains that has the power to excite and enthral people of all ages and cultures?
With two carriages coupled and an immense column of brown smoke now thundering into an overcast Darjeeling sky, it’s time to board. Chaos ensues as a throng of people rushes for the carriage doors and it’s obvious that there are far too many people to fit inside. The uniformed conductor looks on in open-mouthed bewilderment, frozen into inaction in the melee. We push our way to our numbered seats only to discover two young men in salwar kameez occupying them. They look bashfully at us as we show them our tickets, then rise in silence and depart the carriage with rueful smiles.
A couple of portly Americans look decidedly awkward squeezed into the very small, hard seats; indeed the seating arrangements offer an unparalleled degree of intimacy which some Westerners seem to find rather uncomfortable! After some ten or so hectic minutes with much toing and froing, shouting and jostling for seats, a whistle sounds and the train leaves the station with a sudden jolt. A group of office workers from Mumbai seated near us break into spontaneous song and clapping, lending the carriage something of a festival atmosphere.
Whistle shrieking and soots flying in through the open window, the engine puffs its way up through the narrow streets in clouds of grey vapour, pulling its carriages that make a rhythmic clatter as they pass huge billboards advertising tea, what else?!!, and weave in and out of the traffic at a leisurely six miles per hour. Periodically, one of the engine drivers, a Nepali with high cheekbones and piercing eyes sporting a blue bandanna, hops off the train to sprinkle some sand on the track to aid traction.
At times the train lurches by mere inches from cluttered shop fronts, causing people to step back sharply and passengers to withdraw their heads from the windows, for fear of decapitation! I can literally reach through the open window to snatch fruit or clothing from the vendors’ stalls! Laughing children run alongside the carriages, people give chase to take photographs, and traffic yields to the diminutive engine dubbed the ‘Toy Train’. This is a term I dislike, as this is no plaything but a serious piece of British engineering from the era of the Industrial Revolution, kept in service for over a century by sheer Indian ingenuity.
The City of Darjeeling peers though the murk below like a faded watercolour as we enter the graceful double loop at Batasia with its neat gardens and prominent memorial to the Ghurkha soldiers of the Indian army who sacrificed themselves during the War of Independence in 1947. But the much-feted view of the Kanchenjunga mountain peaks is lost in monsoon cloud. We stop here briefly and I am glad of my umbrella as the monsoon downpour strengthens, sending up a strident hiss to match the steam escaping loudly from the engine.
After a few minutes we pile back into our carriage to continue our journey uphill towards Ghoom, the highest railway station in India at 2,258 metres (7,407 ft). The train now labours up the track spewing copious amounts of soot in through the open windows. A clearly irritated Russian woman sat nearby, whose expensive white wool coat is now peppered with black smuts, promptly slams her window shut!
The clammy cold hits us like a sledgehammer as we disembark at Ghoom station. This was built in 1891 and retains a Victorian atmosphere with its ornate wooden ticket counter and waiting room. A man with a rush broom almost as big as him is meticulously sweeping the platform, and the chai stall is doing brisk business in the cold, damp weather. There is a small museum opposite the station dedicated to the railway, but it appears to be closed. We’re not at all disappointed as we’re more interested in viewing Her Ladyship, who is being prepared for the journey back down to Darjeeling.
Red-hot balls of cinders are being raked out of her firebox, spilling onto the track and platform where they smeech and flame. The smell instantly transports me back to my childhood, to the famous Whitsun fair at my Cornish home town of Redruth, when steam traction engines provided power for the fairground rides and lights. I’m especially taken by the brass eagle motif attached to her piston casing, which I assume is meant to be the Himalayan Bird. Uncoupled from her carriages, Himalayan Bird then exits the station to return minutes later facing downhill to Darjeeling where, steam up and carriages re-coupled, she waits, inviting her passengers to reembark.
A sudden loud throaty whistle signals the arrival of a diesel engine pulling three carriages crammed full of people from Kurseong. It clatters through the station without stopping, sounding its whistle like a brash American freight train. It has more speed but none of the grace or charm of Himalayan Bird.
Back aboard, we settle into our seats for the downhill trip to Darjeeling. Dusk is falling early due to the rain, car headlights cast pools of light onto the wet roads running parallel to the track, and the lights come on in our carriage, casting a feeble amber glow over our animated fellow passengers. As we near the city, the train breezes by the squares of brightly lit shops with their wares flowing out onto the narrow pavement mere inches from the train track: neatly stacked pyramids of colourful fruit and vegetables; busy fast food stalls with their naphtha lamps flaring and snacks steaming; brass pots and pans gleaming in the lights of passing cars; and clothes hanging like limp bats from bamboo railings. No one seems perturbed by the passage of the train, after all she’s rather like a noisy family member, and clearly enjoys being centre stage, shrieking her way loudly through the bustling streets.
Just before 6 pm, Himalayan Bird coasts into Darjeeling Station amid much steam and piercing whistles, and our journey is at an end. Although I disembark with a numb bottom from the hard seat, my hair full of cinders and my cream top flecked with soots, it has been a real pleasure to take a two hour journey back in time on one of the world’s most famous railways. The haunting shriek of the whistle echoing round the mist-laden hillsides and the smell of the coal smoke, grease and engine oil will long linger in my memory, as will the incredible snapshot the view from the train gave of life in this historic mountainous region of India.