Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Two Tickets to Ride! A Journey Through Time on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, India

Our jeep judders to a halt to avoid colliding with an old man with a sack slung across his back who has been jostled off the nearby pavement. It’s 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, once a mere village in the eastern foothills of the Himalaya, 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. It soon became the de facto summer capital of British India when the Raj was governed from Calcutta. 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 became synonymous with this beverage. Indeed the hillsides and valleys surrounding Darjeeling are still covered with deep green tea plantations. We are actually staying at a small eco-farm below Darjeeling 8 km down a spine jerking, teeth chattering unsealed road deep in a valley 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 Observatory Hill. We stop briefly to view the Gothic St Andrew’s Church, an Anglican place of worship built in 1843 and rebuilt 30 years later, but now somewhat faded in its majesty, yellow walls streaked with green slime contrasting with its rust red galvanised roof. Close by are the Windermere and Elgin Hotels, elegant stone buildings which conjure up the 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 stare timelessly out over the myriad rooftops of the ‘Queen of the Hills’ which offers majestic views of snow capped Kanchenjunga, which is at the moment totally obscured in monsoon cloud.

But it is another facet of Victorian heritage that we are heading towards, one which for me truly evokes the grandeur of British India: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Narrow gauge (2 ft) and built to transport agricultural produce, this feat of Victorian engineering inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1999, was constructed between 1879 and 1881 to connect Siliguri, at the base of the Himalaya to Darjeeling, a journey of around 78 kilometres formerly made by carriage along the now horrendously congested and dangerous Hill Cart Road. Indeed, parts of it are ingeniously built into the side of this road, sometimes crossing it, running above precipitous drops and making numerous loops and Z-reverses to gain height. Remarkably, nearly a third of the original ‘B’ Class locomotives, the majority of which were designed and built in Glasgow by the North British Locomotive Company between 1889 and 1925, are still in use or under repair.

Due to landslides and catastrophic flooding events, a section of the track is damaged just before Kurseong and there is currently no service from New Jalpaiguri up to this point. Kurseong to Darjeeling and the Darjeeling to 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 Ghum option dubbed ‘The Joy Ride’, booking our tickets in Ireland. 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, there is almost half an hour to go 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, crossing the road to view the 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 at work and we wander along the shed pungent with the smell of engine oil and grease, to a group of dogs sleeping in the dirt below Tusker, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

Suddenly the air is pierced by a high pitched shriek which we immediately know is a steam engine whistle, heralding the arrival of our engine into the station. We run 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 Ghum. 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, cameras snapping away.

The stoker begins to furiously shovel coal into the small firebox which glows gratefully red and the engine driver lovingly wipes her bright work. The smell of coal smoke, grease and oil mingle together in a nostalgic whiff 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?

Two carriages coupled and with an immense column of brown smoke now thundering into an overcast Darjeeling sky, its time to board. Chaos ensues as it's obvious there are too many people to fit into the carriages. The conductor looks on in open mouthed bewilderment, frozen into inaction in the melee. We push our way to our numbered seats in the First Class carriage only to discover two young men in salwar kameez occupying them who look bashfully at us as we show them our tickets. They depart the carriage with rueful smiles. A couple of portly Americans look decidedly uncomfortable squeezed into the very small, hard seats; indeed the seating arrangements offer an unparalleled degree of intimacy which some Westerners seem to find rather awkward! 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 windows, the engine puffs its way up through the narrow streets with a rhythmic clatter amid clouds of vapour past huge billboards advertising tea, weaving in and out of the traffic at a leisurely 6 miles per hour. Periodically, one of the engine drivers, a high cheek boned Nepali wearing a blue bandana, hops off the train to sprinkle some sand on the track to aid traction. At times the train lurches by mere inches from shop fronts, causing people to step back sharply and passengers to withdraw their heads from the windows, for fear of decapitation! I could 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’, a term I dislike, as this is no plaything but a serious piece of British engineering kept in service for over a century by Indian ingenuity.

The much feted view of Kanchenjunga is lost in monsoon cloud and the city of Darjeeling below peers though the murk 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 in battle during the War of Independence in 1947. 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 Ghum, the highest railway station in India at 2,258 metres (7,407 ft).

The train labours up the track spewing soots in through the open windows. A Russian woman sat nearby is clearly not amused as her white coat gets peppered in smuts and slams her window shut! The cold hits us like a sledgehammer as we disembark at Ghum station, built in 1881 which 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 plaque denoting the World Heritage Site status of the railway at the end of the platform near a red post box and a small museum opposite the station dedicated to the railway, but this appears closed. We are, however, 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 smoke and flame. The smell transports me back to my childhood reminding me of the Whitsun fair at Redruth when traction engines provided power for some of the rides. 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, funnel facing downhill to Darjeeling where, steam up and carriages re-coupled, she waits, inviting her passengers to embark. A 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 and car headlights cast pools of light onto the wet roads. The lights come on in the carriage casting a feeble amber glow over its animated occupants. The train breezes by the squares of brightly lit shops, vendors illuminated in lurid detail, contents flowing out onto the narrow pavement mere inches from the train track. Neatly stacked pyramids of fruit and vegetables; busy fast food stalls with lamps and candles flaring; brass pots and pans gleaming in the headlights of passing cars; damp clothes hanging like limp bats from bamboo railings. No one seems perturbed by the passage of the train, after all, she’s 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, our journey 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 narrow gauge railways. The haunting shriek of the whistle echoing round the mist laden hillsides and the smell of the coal smoke and engine oil will linger long in my memory, as will the incredible snapshot the view from the passing train gave of everyday life in this mountainous and historic region of India.