The Darjeeling toy train ride is not just an adventure, but is an opportunity to relive history. Add to it one of the most stunning views of the Himalayas and you have the journey of a lifetime, says Paul Whittle
It was at the bustling mainline junction of New Jalpaiguri in 2002, where I first set my eyes on the little three-carriage Darjeeling toy train, looking a little overwhelmed by its much bigger neighbours. The train, part of the popular Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), is rightly world famous. For 135 years the little Britishbuilt steam locomotives have been puffing their way up 7,000 ft to the popular hill station of Darjeeling.
For the first 20 km (approximately) of the journey, the route is flat and mainly urban, passing through the city of Siliguri, where the Siliguri Town station (Siliguri’s oldest station) is the DHR’s original southern terminus. But then, after passing the first tea estates at the attractive gabled station at Sukna, the line starts to climb steeply and continues to do so right up to the summit at India’s highest railway station – Ghum (7,407 ft) – and where there is an excellent museum on the railway.
As the train chugged away, leaving the city behind, I started reliving a glorious past. It took three years to build the DHR and it opened in 1881, around 60 years after Darjeeling had been established as a hill station. The 2-ft gauge track was laid alongside the steep, winding Hill Cart Road and where the gradient was too steep for the trains, loops and reverses were constructed for an easier route. It was an engineering triumph and it transformed the economy of Darjeeling – up the line went foodstuffs, coal and machinery, and downhill went the output of the ever-expanding tea estates for export around the world. Not for nothing is the Darjeeling brew known as the ‘Champagne of teas’. The Railway was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, only the second railway in the world to have this honour bestowed upon it.
As the train’s ascent began, so did the adventure! No less than six times does the train have to reverse as it climbs through the zig-zags or squeals round the endless tight curves, sometimes on the ledge of the hillside and other times squeezing past trackside houses only inches away from the little carriages. The train snakes through verdant tea gardens set against striking peaks and a panoramic view of the deep valley. At Kurseong, we took a short break for a leg-stretch. In former times it’s said that the trains would pause here, not just for refreshments but also for travellers to change their lightweight clothing for attire more suited to the chilly mountain air awaiting them. But all too soon it was time for our train to press on up the hills, passing through Kurseong Bazar. The Buddhist prayer flags fluttering high up in the mountain add to the feeling of having arrived in the Himalayas.
On its way back, after threading its way through the busy streets of Darjeeling, the train starts to climb, hooting and scattering road vehicles as it ascends the steep gradient leading up to the line’s best viewpoint at Batasia Loop. From here, on a clear day, the Himalayas can be seen in all their snowcapped glory. Then, after a short photo stop at the impressive Gurkha War Memorial, the little train continues on its way up to Ghum.
For those short on time, a good way to sample the DHR is to take one of the daily Toy Train Joy Rides – some diesel-hauled, although the more expensive steam services are always the more popular (even if you run the risk of smoke and soot!). But arriving in Darjeeling on the train heightens the mystery of the hill station, with stunning views of the Himalayas overlooking the old town. Truly, one of the world’s great railway journeys!
The author is a heritage railway enthusiast and the views expressed in the article are his own